By: Kelli Betner
Benoit’s Theory of Image Restoration
Of all of the studies that use the theory of image restoration to analyze crisis strategies, Benoit’s model is probably the most thorough and comprehensive. The theory of image restoration discourse is designed with two communication assumptions in mind: that communication is both a goal- directed activity and that it is critical for maintaining a positive reputation (Benoit, 1995). If an individual or organization is held responsible for an act that is considered offensive or reprehensible, his reputation is at risk (Benoit, 1997b). The theory of image restoration discourse “focuses on message options” (Benoit, 1997). Benoit (1995) acknowledges his exclusion of strategies such as silence or ignoring accusations in favor of more proactive approaches to image repair.
1. Tonya Harding (Benoir & Hanczor, 1994)
The first image repair that we will look at is that of Tonya Harding. Tonya Harding’s need for an image repair came in January 1994 after she attacked fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). The man directly responsible, Shawn Eckardt, was Harding’s bodyguard, and Steve Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband, was implicated as well. Both men identified Harding as a co-conspirator. Harding appeared on television February 10, 1994 and used bolstering, denial, attack of accuser and defeasibility (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). Repeatedly denying wrongdoing, Harding rejected the accusations of Eckardt and Gillooly, reiterated claims that she had not violated Olympic code of conduct, and continued to assert that she had no knowledge of the attack (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). Her strategic use of denial was weakened when she was forced to admit that she had lied in the past. As with her use of bolstering, Harding had no one to corroborate her statements of denial (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). During the Connie Chung interview, Harding attacked her accusers (Eckardt and Gillooly) and offered two examples of defeasibility to justify her inaction (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994). Attacking her accusers and claiming defeasibility may have been more effective if Harding had engaged in mortification as well. Even the smallest expression of remorse may have strengthened her attempt at image repair (Benoit & Hanczor, 1994).
2. Terrell Owens (Brazeal, 2008)
A great example of an image repair to look at is that of Terrell Owens. In 2005, Owens ruined his own image during a contract renewal disagreement with the Philadelphia Eagles (Brazeal, 2008). Brazeal’s analysis of Owens’s image repair proposes a new example of ineffectual strategic planning. Owens and his agent Rosenhaus organized a press conference to try to convince “the coach, the Eagles organization, and the fans that he would mend his ways” (Brazeal, 2008, p.145). Owens read from a prepared statement, which employed the strategies of bolstering and mortification. He bolstered his image by highlighting his exceptional playing ability and he argued that his passion for the game led to his criticism of teammates. He emphasized his devotion to the Eagles by pointing out the difficulty of being deactivated (Brazeal, 2008). Owens apologized to fans, teammates, coaches and Eagles personnel. However, as Brazeal points out, Owens used vague language to avoid blame and made no effort to take specific corrective action. While Owens’ discourse lacked elements of a sincere apology, corrective action or any attempt at humility, his image may have still been repaired with the strategies he did employ. His decision to rely on his agent to assist in the repair of his reputation backfired.
3. Hugh Grant (Benoit, 1997a)
Hugh Grant’s image was threatened in July 1995 when he was found in his car with a 23- year-old prostitute named Devine Brown. Charged with lewd behavior, his mug shot was printed in The New York Times, and a new movie about to be released, Grant’s career was clearly in danger (Benoit, 1997a). Instead of canceling his public appearances, Grant used them as springboards to repair his damaged image. Benoit (1997a) analyzed Grant’s five talk show appearances, and found Grant used four strategies- mortification, bolstering, denial and attacking the accuser. Grant’s main strategy was to use mortification. Grant admitted his offensive behavior and made no excuses for it. He repeatedly expressed concern for his girlfriend and his family, and he indicated he was willing to accept the consequences. Grant attempted to bolster his reputation by appearing on the talk shows. Benoit (1997a) evaluates Grant as maintaining a positive, modest demeanor, creating an impression of honesty and continually expressing concern for his loved ones. Grant also used humor to bolster his image. Individuals familiar with Grant’s wit were probably put at ease by his humor. Grant’s only instance of denial was against claims he frequented topless bars, and he attacked some of the British media for their treatment of his family (Benoit, 1997a). Grant’s image repair strategy was highly effective. While the nature of the act probably influenced forgiveness, Grant’s acceptance of responsibility worked in his favor. He could have remained silent or minimized the situation with excuses, but he did not (Benoit, 1997a).
4. Mark McGwire (Carstairs, 2003)
Carstairs (2003) discusses four doping scandals in sports history, one of which was MLB player Mark McGwire’s use of steroids. The study cites several reasons McGwire’s use of this substance was forgiven. First, the substance was not banned in MLB and was available over the counter, meaning that it enhanced performance but was legal and safe. Second, doping in team sports does not receive as much publicity or scrutiny because individuals on a team do not make that big of a difference compared to athletes in individual sports. Third, national pride was not at stake because it was strictly a domestic matter. Fourth, this incident occurred at a unique time: MLB had just come off a player’s strike, and fans were disillusioned by it. The home-run record race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa was infusing enthusiasm into the sport again, and no doping scandal was going to interfere with that. (Carstairs, 2003) This study shows that a combination of factors may often be present that will result in little need for an elaborate reparation strategy.
5. Kobe Bryant (Kennedy, 2010)
In 2003, NBA star Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault. The criminal charges were dropped because the alleged victim refused to testify, and a civil suit was settled out of court. When the incident was first revealed, Bryant spoke to the Los Angeles Times, saying he would not do something like this. However, when the district attorney filed charges and cited DNA proof that Bryant had sex with the al- leged victim, Bryant immediately set up a press conference declaring he was guilty of adultery, but not of rape. Bryant’s statement included many important elements. (Kennedy, 2010) First, his wife sat by his side, showing her support. Second, he apologized and repented for committing adultery. Third, he publicly apologized to his wife. Fourth, he vehemently denied committing a crime. In addition to all of these, he chose a female defense attorney to represent him, which limited his image as a sexual predator. All of these elements combined to give a fairly convincing, heartfelt statement to the press that said Bryant was sorry for not being perfect but that he did not commit a crime. After his press conference, Bryant pretty much stayed quiet. According to sports agent Drew Rosenhaus, this was the right move. Rosenhaus believed that Bryant did the right thing in admitting he made a mistake in committing adultery and defending himself vehemently against the charges but also recommended that Bryant maintain a low profile to limit the media coverage of the situation (Kennedy, 2010). Bryant did this, and in general, the media coverage garnered by Bryant’s actions covered his talent on the basketball court, not anything he said or did regarding the trial. This study shows that taking responsibility for your actions is the best move, and can help to repair your image the fastest.