Communication, Persuasion, and Image Repair
People and organizations—including companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations—frequently face accusations or suspicions of wrongdoing. A glance at newspaper headlines, televised news stories, or Internet news confirms the ubiquitous nature of threats to image. For example, recently we heard and read about several alleged scandals, including J. P. Morgan's two-billion-dollar loss, General David Petraeus's affair with Paula Broadwell, Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice's abuse of players, and GM's recall of potentially lethal automobiles. So threats to image, face, or reputation are commonplace in society.
Threats to one's image, which usually arise from persuasive messages that attack, criticize, or express suspicion and thereby prompt attempts at image repair, are inevitable for at least four reasons. First, the world in which we live and work has limited resources: There is only so much money, equipment, resources, office space, or time. For example, window offices are coveted and corner offices even more so, yet there are more cubicles than window and corner offices. Raise pools are limited, as are opportunities for promotion. We often compete fiercely for these tangible and intangible goods, which means the allocation of these scarce resources often provokes the ire of those who wanted these resources distributed differently. Second, circumstances beyond our control sometimes prevent us from meeting our obligations. We may be delayed by traffic and arrive late to meetings; documents or computer files may become lost or corrupted; or a colleague may neglect to inform us that the time or location of an important meeting has changed. Our behavior is significantly influenced by the people, events, and environment around us, and frequently these factors create problems for us and those who depend on us. Third, human beings are not perfect, and at times we commit wrongdoings, some of which are honest errors, whereas other actions are guided too much by our self-interests. We may forget to bring a report to a meeting or to stop and buy milk on the way home from work; a selfemployed individual may send the IRS an insufficient quarterly tax payment; or a contractor may substitute cheaper and inferior parts in a building. Alcohol, drugs, or even lack of sleep may cloud our judgment and hinder performance of our duties. Finally, the fact that human beings are individuals with different sets of priorities fosters conflict among those with competing goals. For example, do we want the most effective prescription drugs (desired by patients) or the least expensive drugs (wanted by insurance companies)? Should a country's leader focus more time and energy on domestic issues (e.g., job creation) or foreign concerns (e.g., national security)? How do we balance protecting society from criminals with preserving rights of those accused of crimes? How do we balance cost and access to as well as quality of health care? So four factors combine to ensure that actual or perceived wrongdoing is a recurrent feature of human activity.
When such inevitable (apparent) misbehavior occurs, others are very likely to attack, berate, blame, censure, condemn, rail against, rebuke, reproach, or object to us and our behavior. They may complain about things we said or did, they may carp about things left unsaid or undone, or they might criticize the way in which we performed an action or phrased an utterance. Indeed, the simple fact that our language is rich in synonyms for accuse is an indication of the ubiquity of complaints or persuasive attack. Persuasive attacks are messages that attempt to create unfavorable attitudes about a target (person or organization), and these messages have been investigated in several studies (e.g., Benoit & Delbert, 2010; Benoit & Dorries, 1996; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999; Benoit, Klyukovski, McHale, & Airne, 2001; Benoit & Stein, 2009).
These attacks on our reputation are serious matters, for our image or reputation is extremely vital to us. Face, image, or reputation contributes to a healthy self-image. Others may shun us, taunt us, or mistreat us in other ways when they believe we have committed a wrongful act. We can feel embarrassed and even depressed when we become aware that others think we have engaged in wrongdoing. A damaged reputation can hurt our persuasiveness, because credibility generally and trustworthiness in particular are important to persuasion (e.g., Benoit & Benoit, 2008; Benoit & Strathman, 2004), and credibility can be impaired by fallout from actual or perceived wrongdoing. We may be liable to punishment such as fines or jail time for
our misdeeds. Although organizations, including companies, may not feel embarrassed, officers, workers, and shareholders do have feelings, and those feelings can be hurt when their organization is the target of accusations. Furthermore, in the private sector, other companies or organizations may take their business elsewhere when a company has a tarnished reputation. For example, Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke on his talk show. Carusone (2013) reported, “It's been one year since Rush Limbaugh's invective-filled tirade against then-Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke. With hundreds of advertisers and millions of dollars lost, the business of right-wing radio is suffering.” People and companies jealously guard their reputations and work hard to repair tarnished images. Hence, attacks on one's image can be very serious concerns, and most people recognize the importance of these threats to reputation.
Those who believe that their face or reputation has been injured or even threatened rarely ignore these perils. When our image is threatened, we usually feel compelled to offer explanations, defenses, justifications, rationalizations, apologies, or excuses for our behavior. This book investigates verbal responses to perceived damage to reputation—image repair strategies—because threats to image are pervasive, reputation is important, and discourse has the potential to mend our face or reputation. This first chapter provides a backdrop for the remainder of this book.
Defensive utterances (justifications, excuses, apologies—i.e., image repair) are persuasive attempts to reshape the audience's attitudes, creating or changing beliefs about the accused's responsibility for an act and/or creating or changing values about the offensiveness of those acts. I distinguish image repair discourse from crisis communication, a broader category. Figure 1.1 illustrates how image repair discourse fits into crisis communication, communication generally, and human behavior. Human behavior includes both physical acts and communication. Communication includes a variety of contexts, including health communication, political communication, and crisis communication. Crisis communication includes image repair discourse, but it also includes messages about other kinds of crises, such as natural disasters and terrorism. The theory of image repair discourse focuses exclusively on messages designed to improve images tarnished by criticism and suspicion (it is also possible to try to preempt anticipated criticism).
This book updates the theory of image repair discourse (originally referred to as the theory of image restoration discourse) with
Figure 1.1. Communication, crisis communication, and image repair.
discussion of developments since the first edition was published in 1995. The case studies in this book are all new, and it extends this theory in several directions. I begin here with an overview, discussing the nature of communication, and then I proceed with addressing the nature of persuasive communication, introducing the idea of persuasive attack, and providing an initial treatment of image repair.