Image Repair Theory
The heart of image repair theory is some threat to an individual’s or organization’s image or reputation. There are two prerequisites for image repair. First, some offensive event must have occurred. Second, some individual or organization must be held responsible for the offensive event. For instance, the individual might have embezzled money, or the organization might have had a transportation accident. The key is that the individual or organization is perceived as responsible for the offensive act. By linking the offensive event to the individual or organization, the image or reputation of the individual or organization can be placed at risk of harm.
William Benoit published the book Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies in 1995. This book was a significant advancement in crisis communication theory with the articulation of image restoration theory. The theory has also been called image repair theory and image repair discourse. Though the name has changed, the fundamental elements of image repair theory have remained constant. This entry discusses the basics of image repair theory and the influences on its development, and provides a review of the image repair strategies articulated in the theory.
Communication can be used in an attempt to repair the image or reputation. Image repair theory holds that communication is goal directed. This means that communication is purposeful and tries to achieve specific goals. Image repair theory posits that a primary goal of communication is image or reputation protection. Various communication strategies can be used in attempts by individuals or organizations to repair their reputations. As noted in this section, image repair theory was developed as a general theory for responding to image (reputational) threats that could be applied to individuals and organizations. It was not designed specifically for use in organizational crises.
Influences on the Development of Image Repair Theory
Theories must be grounded in the context in which they are developed. To appreciate a theory, it is important to consider the factors influencing its development. In terms of crisis communication, image repair theory extends a line of research that begins with apologia. Apologia is a rhetorical genre that examines words spoken in self-defense. People use apologia to defend their character from attacks. A typical character attack would be associating the individual with some wrongdoing. Apologia must start with an attack on character. People can then use one or a combination of four apologia strategies: (1) denial, where people claim they are not involved in any wrongdoing; (2) bolstering, where the audience is reminded of the good things the people have done; (3) differentiation, where people attempt to remove the action from its negative context; and (4) transcendence, where people attempt to place the action in a new, broader context that is more favorable.
Corporations have public personas and engage in apologia just like individuals. These personae can be subject to attack and demand a defense in a manner identical to that for an individual’s character. A crisis would be an example of a wrongdoing that would threaten the corporate character and/or reputation and require defense. Crisis communication strategies can be used to defend the corporate character or reputation.
Michael Hearit refined and expanded the concept, and his is the name most commonly associated with corporate apologia and its link to crises. Hearit viewed a crisis as a threat to an organization’s social legitimacy. Social legitimacy represents the consistency between stakeholder and organizational values. If social legitimacy erodes, stakeholders might oppose an organization, thereby creating difficulties for the organization. We can treat social legitimacy as an element of reputation because a reputation does include expectations of how organizations should behave.
Benoit deemed the response strategies emerging from apologia as too limited and sought to expand the repertoire of response strategies available for image repair. Benoit turned to the interpersonal concepts of account giving and impression management to discover additional image repair strategies. An account is when people supply a reason for their actions. When a person’s actions are questioned, he or she must supply accounts. For instance, a man does not pick up a friend at the airport at the appointed time. The friend will want an account from the man to explain why he did not pick her up at the airport. We find a similar pattern that undergirds corporate apologia and image restoration in account giving—some event triggers (typically negative) create a need to communicate with others. Impression management examines the ways people try to manage their personal reputations—how other people perceive them. Impression management is goal directed and involves planned effort to influence the perceptions of others. Benoit’s work has been applied to a number of cases that involved both individuals, such as actor Hugh Grant, and organizations, such as Texaco. Again, image repair theory can be treated as a general theory of reputation repair and was not developed to be limited to just corporate reputations.
Image repair theory, following the rhetorical tradition of crisis communication, offers a sender orientation to crisis communication and reputation repair. It emphasizes what the individual or organization (sender) says and does in the crisis, with little regard for how those strategies are perceived by the stakeholders involved in the crisis. Moreover, image restoration theory is primarily a descriptive theory. The theory is used to analyze what image repair strategies were used in a particular case. The analyst then tries to find markers of success or failure of the crisis communication effort and make some connections between the image repair strategies and the success or failure of the crisis communication effort. Consider, for example, the image repair strategies used by Dow Chemical during the breast implant crisis. Dow Chemical changed its use of image repair strategies because of the failure of its initial strategy of denial. The case method means that any reported effects of the crisis response strategies are speculative because it is a matter of the critic’s interpretation of the case. The nature of the qualitative data analysis does not permit the causal claims needed to support prescriptive claims. Causal claims are relevant to this discussion because any prescriptive advice offered about the effectiveness of image repair strategies is a form of causal claim.
The advice from the image repair theory studies relies heavily on the use of apologies. Eventually, the image repair theory writings do make some prescriptive claims related to image restoration theory. The recommendations include the following: (a) admit guilt when known, (b) deny if innocent, (c) shifting blame can work, (d) prove lack of control, (e) report corrective action, and (f) minimization may not help. These recommendations are a form of causal claims. The causal claim is that if the image repair strategy is used there will be a positive outcome for the individual’s or organization’s reputation. It must be stated that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support these causal claims from image repair theory because qualitative methods are used in the vast majority of image repair theory research. However, research in other lines of crisis communication research has found mixed support for these causal claims.
Five Image Repair Strategies
The most profound contribution of image repair theory to the study of crises and reputations is Benoit’s list of image repair strategies. Benoit synthesized research from rhetoric, account giving, and impression management to create a list of image repair strategies that he organized into five groups. From rhetoric, Benoit used apologia and Kenneth Burke’s notion of purification. It should be noted that Benoit viewed the grouping as a simple organizing framework, a starting point for researchers. He was open to the idea that people can examine and treat the grouping differently and can even expand the list. Each of the five categories is composed of a number of substrategies.
The first image repair strategy category is denial. Denial protects an image or reputation by showing that there is no connection between the individual or organization and the offensive event. For instance, management tries to establish that the organization has no responsibility for the crisis. If the stakeholders accept the denial, there should be no image or reputational damage because there is responsibility for the crisis. There are two subcategories for denial: (1) simple denial and (2) shift the blame (scapegoating). In simple denial, the person or organization claims that the organization has no connection at all to the crisis. There may be a crisis, but it is unrelated to the organization. For instance, people might have been misinformed that the person or organization was involved in the crisis. In shifting the blame, the person or organization blames some other actor for the crisis.
The second image repair strategy category is evading responsibility. The individual or organization acknowledges some responsibility for the crisis but tries to reduce the perceived responsibility for the crisis. Evading responsibility helps repair the image or reputation because reducing responsibility for a crisis reduces the reputational damage from the crisis. There are four subcategories for evading responsibility: (1) provocation, (2) defeasibility, (3) accidental, and (4) good intentions. Provocation is the argument that the person or organization was responding to the action of others—the events initiating the offensive act were begun by others. Defeasibility means saying that the person or organization lacked information about or control over the situation. For instance, a criminal might engage in product tampering, and an organization cannot control the malicious actions of others. Accident means emphasizing that things just happen sometimes, such as a lightning strike causing a fire. Good intentions means insisting that the individual or organization meant well with an action but something went wrong. For example, a mistake in the printing of a contest advertisement led to the contest being voided and no prizes distributed.
The third image repair strategy is to reduce offensiveness. This strategy attempts to make the crisis look better to stakeholders. There are six subcategories for reducing offensiveness: (1) bolstering, (2) minimizing, (3) differentiation, (4) transcendence, (5) attacking the accuser, and (6) compensation. Bolstering occurs when the individual or organization reminds stakeholders of past good works and/or praises people who have helped in the crisis. Minimizing the offense is arguing that the situation is not as bad as people perceive it to be. Differentiation means comparing the crisis with a more negative event. For instance, managers might say that an oil spill was not even among the top 100 most damaging oil spills. Transcendence is trying to place the crisis in a new and less negative context. Attacking the accuser is to challenge the people who are promoting the existence of a crisis. Compensation is when the individual or organization offers victims money, goods, or services. An example would be a cruise company offering a free trip and covering added expenses if a cruise must end prematurely due to mechanical problems.
The fourth image repair strategy is corrective action. It has no substrategies. Corrective action involves the individual or organization announcing what is being done to prevent a repeat of the crisis and/or how it is restoring the situation to its precrisis state.
The fifth image repair strategy is mortification. It has no substrategies. Mortification involves the individual or organization admitting guilt for the crisis, expressing concern, and asking for forgiveness. It is important to remember that the strategies can be used in combination with one another—an individual or organization is not limited to just one image repair strategy.
Image repair theory was a major advancement in the study of crisis communication and its relationship to reputation repair. It remains one of the dominant theoretical perspectives for studying crisis communication.
Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Brinson, S. L., & Benoit, W. L. (1996). Dow Corning’s image repair strategies in the breast implant crisis. Communication Quarterly, 44(1), 29–41.
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