Communication Image Repair Theory
by
William L. Benoit
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0103

Introduction

Crisis communication has emerged as an important area for theory and research in communication. Image repair, along with communication about disasters and terrorism, is a component of crisis communication. “Image” refers to reputation or face. Image is composed of perceptions about us held by others (relevant audiences). Our image is influenced by things we say and do, by what others say about us, and how others behave toward us. Of course, an image is based on past knowledge (attitudes) as well as current statements and deeds. Image is important to people because threats to image often create embarrassment, which is unpleasant. Image is also quite important to both people and organizations (including corporations, universities, and governments) because reputation affects how others treat them. When we believe (have perceptions) that others accuse or suspect us of wrong-doing, a threat to our image arises. Note that these beliefs (about what others think about us) are a second layer of perceptions. Image repair can come into play when we hold the perception that others have negative perceptions of us. A source’s credibility (image) is an important factor in persuasion: we are more likely to be persuaded by those with high credibility and less likely to be persuaded by those with low credibility. This means that at times when it is particularly important to be persuasive—such as when we are dealing with threats to image—the accusations or suspicions that prompt image repair can reduce the effectiveness of our defensive messages.

Key Texts

Ware and Linkugel wrote the important early article “They Spoke In Defense of Themselves: On the Generic Criticism of Apologia” (Ware and Linkugel 1973). As conceptualized by Ware and Linkugel this genre does not include apology (i.e., admission of wrong-doing, expression of regret, request for forgiveness) as an option. Kenneth Burke, a literary theorist and critic who is very influential in rhetorical circles, argued in Burke 1970 that society is composed of hierarchies and human nature means we inevitably violate societal norms. These violations produce guilt, which prompts messages in order to achieve redemption. Burke identified two options for dealing with guilt: victimage (shifting blame) and mortification (confessing and asking for forgiveness). Scott and Lyman were sociologists who discussed “accounts,” which are explanations for untoward behavior (Scott and Lyman 1968). They divide accounts into excuses and justifications. Benoit, et al. 1991, relying primarily on these three sources, articulates an early version of image repair theory (referred to initially as image restoration theory). Pomerantz 1978 explains that complaints have two elements: blame and offensiveness. Benoit 2015 updates the theory of image repair, which takes its cue from the attacks or suspicions that prompt image repair messages. It also relates the concepts of blame and offensiveness to beliefs and values in the theory of reasoned action, and discusses image repair discourse in several contexts. Image repair theory identifies five general approaches (and fourteen total strategies) for responding to accusations or suspicions: denial and evading responsibility address blame; reducing offensiveness concerns offensiveness; and mortification and corrective action attempt to repair an image without directly dealing with blame or offensiveness.

  • Benoit, William L. 2015. Accounts, excuses, and apologies: Image repair theory and research. 2d ed. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book updates theory and research on image repair. It relates image repair to Fishbein and Ajzen’s concepts of beliefs (blame) and values (offensiveness). This book looks at image repair in several contexts: political, corporate, sports/entertainment, international, and third-party (when one person or organization attempts to repair the image of another). New case studies of image repair on each topic are discussed.

  • Benoit, William L., Paul Gullifor, and Daniel A. Panici. 1991. President Reagan’s defensive discourse on the Iran-Contra affair. Communication Studies 42:272–294.

    DOI: 10.1080/10510979109368342E-mail Citation »

    This article provided the initial presentation of image restoration theory, applying it to multiple messages from President Ronald Reagan on the Iran-Contra affair. His defense was not particularly effective. When the Tower Commission Report was published he was forced to shift to mortification and corrective action and his image began to improve.

  • Burke, Kenneth. 1970. Rhetoric of religion. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book addresses ways of dealing with guilt so as to achieve redemption. It argues that society inherently possesses a hierarchy or set of norms. Human beings inevitably violate these norms, giving rise to guilt. In order to achieve redemption, people have two options: victimage (shifting blame to a scapegoat) and mortification (confessing to wrong-doing and begging forgiveness).

  • Pomerantz, Anita. 1978. Attributions of responsibility: Blamings. Sociology 12:115–121.

    DOI: 10.1177/003803857801200107E-mail Citation »

    This article identifies the two key components of a complaint: blame (responsibility) and offensiveness. For an image to be at risk, both elements must be present. If I did something (blame) but what I did is inoffensive, my face is not threatened. Similarly, if an offensive act occurred but I had nothing to do with it (no blame), my reputation is not at risk.

  • Scott, Marvin B., and Stanford M. Lyman. 1968. Accounts. American Sociological Review 33:46–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/2092239E-mail Citation »

    This article discusses two approaches to dealing with unfavorable evaluations. Excuses attempt to reduce blame for an offensive act. Justifications try to neutralize the unfavorable evaluation of an action.

  • Ware, B. L., and Wil A. Linkugel. 1973. They spoke in defense of themselves: On the generic criticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech 59:273–283.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335637309383176E-mail Citation »

    Articulates a genre of speeches of self-defense. One accused of wrong-doing has four responses: denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence. They also identify four postures or combination defenses: absolutive (denial and differentiation), vindicative (denial and transcendence), explanative (bolstering and differentiation), and justificative (bolstering and transcendence).

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