Persuasive Attack

Table of Contents:

A persuasive attack can be viewed as an attempt to create (or strengthen) a negative attitude toward the target. One can attack by describing a person's behavior—that is, creating a new belief (“He stole a car”)—if the audience has an unfavorable value about this action (“stealing is wrong”). In fact, some messages simply report what the source believes to be true without any intent to impugn the reputation of the target. The new belief, which attributes responsibility for an action to the target, coupled with the existing value that stealing is wrong, encourages the audience to have a negative attitude toward the target. On the other hand, one can rely on an existing belief (“Mitt Romney favors lower taxes”) and try to create a negative value for the audience, stressing the offensiveness of this idea (“reducing taxes increases the deficit, which is undesirable”). As noted, for a person to have a negative attitude, that individual must have a belief/value pair. Only if you have a belief about another person and hold a value relevant to that belief can that information help you form an attitude toward that person. One can also attack a group or organization in the same way. Persuasive discourse is enthymematic (see Aristotle's Rhetoric, 1954); this means that the persuader may be able to rely on the audience to provide some part of the argument. In other words, an attacking message does not always need to explicitly address both of these components. Pomerantz (1978) explains that when you blame someone (or criticize them), you must allege that the target committed an act (belief) and that the act is offensive (value).

Image Repair Discourse

Image repair discourse is a persuasive message or group of messages that respond(s) to attacks or suspicions that promote a negative attitude about the source of image repair (see Benoit, 1995a, 1997b, 2000a). As just noted, threats to an image have two components: blame and offensiveness (Pomerantz, 1978). These two elements correspond to Fishbein and Ajzen's (2010) concepts of beliefs (blame) and values (offensiveness). One can respond to an attack (or to suspicions) by rejecting or reducing responsibility (altering beliefs about blame) or reducing offensiveness (altering values). It is also possible to admit wrongdoing and apologize; one may also propose to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again. These approaches can be pursued with persuasive messages that create or change the audience's beliefs or values (or their perceptions about blame and offensiveness).

Understanding that a threat to one's image is comprised of blame (belief) and offensiveness (value) means that we can use Fishbein and Ajzen's theory of reasoned action to develop ideas for persuading an audience or repairing one's image. Starting with the idea that an attitude is based on salient belief/value pairs, Benoit and Benoit (2008) offer six suggestions for improving an attitude based on this theory:

1. Strengthen a belief associated with a favorable attitude.

2. Strengthen a value associated with a favorable attitude.

3. Weaken a belief associated with an unfavorable attitude.

4. Weaken a value associated with an unfavorable attitude.

5. Create a new, favorable attitude.

6. Remind the audience of a forgotten favorable attitude.

Fishbein and Ajzen's theory helps us develop strategies for repairing a damaged image. For example, if the audience has both favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward Yahoo, image repair on behalf of Thompson or Yahoo can attempt to strengthen an existing favorable attitude (by strengthening either the belief or the value component of this attitude), weaken an existing unfavorable attitude (by weakening the belief or value element of the unfavorable attitude), or create a new favorable attitude (which must have a belief and a value).


This book explores the pervasive human discourse form of image repair messages. The first edition of this book developed the theory of image restoration discourse based on a review of the literature from rhetorical (frequently called apologia) and sociological (“accounts” and “excuses”) perspectives. I decided to change the name of this theory from image restoration to image repair because I thought the former might imply that persuasive defense ought to be able to completely restore the image. Although it is possible that image repair might be completely successful, fully dissipating all bad feelings, a persuasive defense often only partially succeeds, repairing the damaged image. In this edition, chapter 2 presents the theory of image repair discourse, focusing on key research reviewed in the first edition and on more recent work. This theory is informed by my understanding of communication, persuasion, and persuasive attack, discussed here in chapter 1. After chapter 2, I discuss several contexts or kinds of image repair. Chapter 3 discusses corporate image repair. Political image repair is taken up in chapter 4. Chapter 5 investigates image repair in sports and entertainment. Chapter 6 discusses image repair in international contexts. Third party image repair—messages in which one person or organization defends or helps defend the reputation of another—is the subject of chapter 7. The book ends with conclusions in chapter 8.

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