Image restoration theory – referred to as “image repair theory” in recent literature, to imply that an image might be improved but not completely restored – addresses the question of what a person or organization can say when accused or suspected of wrongdoing. Our reputation is vital both for our self-esteem and because reputation influences how others will treat us. Ken Lay (Enron) and Congressman Gary Condit (who appeared uncooperative in the search for missing intern Chandra Levy) failed to repair their images. Tylenol, on the other hand, did repair its image after its capsules were poisoned. Countries also engage in image repair: Saudi Arabia placed a series of advertisements attempting to distance itself from the 9/11 tragedy (many of the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, including Osama bin Laden). Clearly, a favorable image is desirable, and tarnished images need repair.
Image restoration theory begins by noting that accusations or suspicions have two components: responsibility (blame) and offensiveness. An image is at risk only when an offensive act has occurred and one is believed to be responsible for that act. Those accused or suspected of wrongdoing have five general options, which are related to responsibility and offensiveness. Denial argues that the accused is not responsible for the offensive act. A second general option is to evade responsibility (partially reducing blame), with strategies such as claiming the offensive act was an accident, that one was provoked into performing the act, or that one lacked the ability or information necessary to prevent the offensive act. A third group of strategies address the second component, attempting to reduce offensiveness by minimizing the damage or attempting to justify the offensive action (e.g., I stole to feed my starving family). Corrective action attempts to fix the problem (or prevent it from happening again), addressing offensiveness. Finally, mortification admits responsibility and asks for forgiveness. Altogether image restoration theory identifies 14 strategies, which are individually defined and illustrated in Benoit (1995; 1997).
Those who want to repair tarnished images should begin by identifying the key target audience. For example, a company accused of polluting the environment faces many potential audiences, including local residents, environmental activists, customers, reporters, governmental regulations, and stockholders. These groups have different interests and most likely would not respond equally well to the same message, for example, local residents would like to hear that a company will spend whatever it takes to stop all pollution, but the same message might not bring joy to its stockholders. Second, the accused must identify the specific accusations or suspicions. One may choose to ignore an accusation that is unimportant to the target audience, but it is a serious mistake to accidently overlook an important accusation. Third, one must understand the target audience: What do they know (or think they know) about the accusations? What needs and interests matter to them concerning the accusations (what things do they value most)?
The persuader should select from among the 14 image repair strategies with the accusations, the target audience, and the facts of the case in mind. It is not necessary to use all 14 strategies (indeed, some options, such as provocation, have not been found to be very persuasive). Some strategies go together well, for example, “I apologize” (mortification) and “I will fix the problem” (corrective action). On the other hand, some strategies do not work well together, for example, “I did not steal” (denial) and “I stole for my starving family” (justification, or transcendence). Finally, it is important to realize that the “facts” matter in image repair. One who is innocent probably should use denial (although, unfortunately, not all genuine denials are believed). One who is guilty probably should confess. Telling the truth is, of course, the right thing to do; however, the two main considerations of corporations are often the best way to repair their image, and how they can avoid costly lawsuits. Furthermore, not all denials are equally effective. One must implement the selected strategies in a message using the “facts” (evidence, such as statistics or examples) that are likely to be persuasive to the audience.
One important tension often arises. In general, people do not like to admit wrongdoing: confession threatens one’s face. On the other hand, audiences usually want wrongdoers to admit their mistakes (and clean up their mess). So, the option that is most likely to persuade audiences – mortification – tends to be shunned by those accused of wrongdoing. However, we must keep in mind that a false denial is often found out, at which point the offender will have committed two wrongs: the original offensive act and then the lie.
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