Corporate Image Repair

One of the most popular contexts for studying image repair discourse is the corporate sphere. Corporations are a large source of employment and are key players in the economy. Scandals and crises in corporations are particularly newsworthy. This chapter does not attempt to review all the available literature; the purpose is to illustrate work in this area.

Scholars discuss the stages of a crisis. For example, Coombs (2012) argues for a three-stage model. The “precrisis” stage concerns “actions to be performed before a crisis is encountered” (p. 11). The intent is to prevent crises or minimize the consequences of crises when they occur. The second phase is the “crisis event,” which “begins with a trigger event that marks the beginning of a crisis” and “ends when the crisis is considered to be resolved” (p. 12). Image repair theory addresses this phase—defensive messages developed after the crisis emerges that hopefully resolve it. Finally, the “postcrisis” stage occurs after the crisis is resolved: The organization considers what to do next, revising crisis response plans and reflecting on whether its practices need to be modified to prevent or minimize future crises.

Coombs (2012) also identifies three kinds of crisis situations: victim (little responsibility), accidental (low responsibility), and preventable (high responsibility). Remember that chapter 2 argued that the amount of responsibility is not always obvious, that perceptions of the kind of situation can vary among members of an audience or between audience groups, and that the person or organization can attempt to alter perceptions of responsibility in an image repair message.

In a case study of actor Hugh Grant's apology for patronizing a prostitute, I contrasted corporate image repair with image repair in politics and entertainment (Benoit, 1997). Corporations are more liable to attacks from competitors than entertainers are (although corporations are perhaps less susceptible to rival attacks than politicians). Corporations often have resources for designing and disseminating image repair messages and have options not available to entertainers: It may be possible to limit damage by firing one or more employees, but Hugh Grant cannot fire himself. Persuaders often face multiple goals; corporations are probably at greater risk from lawsuits than politicians or entertainers. Finally, corporations, like politicians, are more likely to make decisions that affect many people, compared with actors. Next some of the literature on corporate image repair will be reviewed, followed by two new case studies.

In 1991, AT&T experienced a power outage that interrupted its long-distance service. Air traffic controllers relied on land lines, so in addition air travel was affected. A full-page newspaper ad effectively used mortification, corrective action, and bolstering to repair AT&T's image (Benoit & Brinson, 1994).

Sears auto repair centers were accused of consumer fraud by the California Department of Consumer Affairs in 1992. Sears used newspaper advertisements, television spots, and other messages to disseminate its defense. In the first phase it used denial and attacked its accuser. When these accusations were corroborated in New Jersey, Sears announced corrective action. It never apologized for fraud, however, and the defense was evaluated as largely ineffectual (Benoit, 1995b).

Dow Corning was criticized in 1991–1992 about the safety of its breast implants. Initially it denied accusations. Later it used a mild form of mortification (e.g., saying it did not express its concerns for women adequately) without admitting to wrongdoing and deployed a form of corrective action by ceasing production of the implants (Brinson & Benoit, 1996). Criticism abated after the corrective action.

After an airplane crash killed 132 people in 1994, USAir used full-page newspaper advertisements to repair its tarnished image. Three image repair strategies were employed: bolstering, denial, and what Benoit and Czerwinski (1997) termed “pseudo-corrective action.” The changes USAir announced “were not designed to actually improve its safety, but simply to convince the flying public of USAir's current safety” (p. 51). This was not an effective defense. ValuJet experienced a crash in 1996. Fishman (1999) identified several image repair strategies: accident, minimization, denial, shifting blame, and corrective action (including changing its name to AirTran).

In 1996, a secret tape recording of executives at Texaco was made public. In it, African American employees were characterized as “black jelly beans” who were “glued to the bottom of the jar” (Brinson & Benoit, 1999, p. 484). These revelations prompted outrage, and Texaco attempted to repair its image with several messages with multiple strategies: bolstering, corrective action, mortification, and shifting blame. The most interesting strategy in the successful defense was shifting the blame to “bad apples” in the company, who were punished.

Garry Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury made repeated attacks on the tobacco industry in 1989, arguing that tobacco is dangerous and addictive and purposely marketed to children (Benoit & Hirson, 2001). The Tobacco Institute (an industry organization) created a brochure to respond to these charges: “Smoking and Young People: Where the Tobacco Industry Stands.” This message used denial, corrective action, shifting blame, bolstering, and good intentions. These strategies did not work well together. Corrective action is not consistent with denial (why change marketing procedures if the companies were not marketing to children?); key accusations were ignored, as tobacco is widely believed to be dangerous; and the implementation of the strategies in discourse was weak (e.g., the pamphlet denied that advertising caused smoking, without any evidence and contrary to common sense).

Several hundred people were killed when Firestone tires failed; fatalities were reported in 1992 when reports of tire separation began. The company attempted to shift the blame to Ford (many accidents occurred in Ford Explorers). Firestone also used bolstering and denial, which were undermined by mortification and corrective action. Corrective action was too vague to be persuasive. The image repair effort was poorly designed (Blaney, Benoit, & Brazeal, 2002).

Caldiero, Taylor, and Ungureanu (2009) examined 17 cases of fraud to investigate production (not persuasiveness) of image repair strategies. They found that organizations most frequently used corrective action. Good intentions, transcendence, and bolstering were also common strategies.

British Petroleum's Gulf Coast oil spill occurred in 2010. Muralidharan, Dillistone, and Shin (2011) sampled BP's image repair strategies on social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr). They identified four strategies: corrective action, compensation, simple denial, and accident.

This chapter offers two additional case studies on corporate image repair: BP and the Gulf oil spill, and Grunenthal Group's apology for thalidomide drug birth defects.

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