Understanding Image Restoration Strategies from a Stakeholder

Understanding Image Restoration Strategies
from a Stakeholder Approach
Chutima Kessadayurat
This article focuses on image restoration strategies, a practice in public relations. Specifically,
this article proposes two major theoretical frameworks; theory of social construction of reality and
stakeholder analysis approach in studying image restoration in parallel with Benoit’s image
restoration theory (1995). Besides focusing to the limited message strategies of Benoit’s image
restoration from the traditional perspective, as providing the practitioners merely ‘what’ strategies
to be selected as to respond to the crisis, it is possible that deeper understanding on ‘how’ image
restoration messages works and to design message tailored each group of stakeholders should be
obtained. Most importantly, this article provides both scholars and practitioners an understanding
and fine-tuning restoration messages with specific group of stakeholder in order to regain positive
organization image.
Keywords: Image Restoration Strategies, Social Construction of Reality, A Stakeholder Approach,
Multiple Interpretations and Organization Image
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The research of image restoration is scarce
(Benoit, 2001), and, moreover, most of the image
restoration studies are based on western theory,
which may be or may be not wholly applicable to
Thai context, particularly the current topic of
political crisis. This is mainly due to the cultural
differences between western and eastern contexts
which influence the practice of image restoration.
Thai culture, as a context, influences different
beliefs, values, attitudes, and creates potentially
different expectations among stakeholders in Thailand.
The theory might need to be adapted to applicable in
Thai context. Moreover, the theory allows merely the
identification of typology, not the process of how the
strategy is communicated. By incorporating the theory
of social construction of reality in understanding the
image restoration message, it is hoped that it will
offer a more complete picture. That is, it helps explain
how an organization’s image restoration strategies
function in constructing its image, as social reality,
for people. In addition, it will provide an understanding
Vol. 10, No.1, January-June 2011
of how the social interaction encourages people to
enact with each particular reality.
Most importantly, since most of the image
restoration studies rarely incorporated the stakeholder
theory, this limits the growth of the field. This article,
as highlighting the significance of stakeholders in
designing image restoration message, should extend
the body of knowledge of the image restoration. That
is, the article goes beyond describing general strategies
as, in particular, the content management of the image
restoration strategy tailoring different group of
stakeholders effectively will be discussed. Realizing
of the situation, it is hoped that new insights into both
theoretical and practical level regarding studying
image restoration in Thai context should be obtained.
Crisis Communication and Organization Image
Crisis communication is regarded as an important
area in the study of corporate communication. It is
possible to say that every public and private organization
has been encountered with a crisis. Crisis is typically
viewed as a threat to an organizational image and an
organization attempts to find ways to respond to the
crisis and to regain public trust. Corporate
communication, therefore, is considered as a significant
means to communicate organizational crisis response
strategies to its various publics
Concern with the importance of organizational
crisis has developed various studies for organization
crisis management. These studies provide different
perspectives on managing organizational crisis. The
corporate communication field also has developed
organizational crisis studies and various definitions
of organizational crisis based on the role of
communication in crisis. For organizational
communication study, an inclusive definition of
organizational crisis is “a specific, unexpected and
nonroutine event or series of events that create high
levels of uncertainty and threaten or are perceived to
threaten an organization’s high-priority goal” (Seeger,
Sellnow & Ulmer, 1998, 233).
Crisis can be viewed through its shared variables
that are normally found in the examination of a crisis
and the organization’s response. These variables are
threat, short response time and surprise (Hermann,
1963). These three components also appeared in most
organizational crisis definitions, such as Kathleen
Fearn-Banks (2001); Williams and Olaniran (2002);
Pauchant and Mitroff (1992); Seeger, Sellnow and
Ulmer; Weick (1988); Gouran (1982); Billing et al.
(1980); Seeger and Bolz (1996) and Sellnow and
Ulmer (1995).
Threat arises from the extreme discrepancy
between the desired status of an organization, and the
status under which it is being, or potentially will be,
viewed. Most of the time, managers are notified of
some trigger events that might lead to crisis by
subordinates or someone outside the organization. A
crisis manager, thus, needs to monitor various
possible outcomes and responses before having a
chance to assess the severity of the problem.
The second characteristic of crisis is short
response time. When a crisis occurs, the availability
and efficacy of an organization’s response is needed.
Time constraint is the critical factor in dealing with
crisis. The crisis manager should provide a complete
and honest explanation of the crisis to media and
third party in time so that it will not create additional
threat and uncertainty that damages the organization’s
credibility and image.
The third characteristic of crisis is surprise.
Surprise is a consequence of being suddenly
confronted with circumstances seen as unlikely and
inconsistent with routine, familiar activities (Seeger,
Sellnow & Ulmer, 1998, 233). Decision makers
faced with crisis are confronted with nonroutine
decision situations, unanticipated sources of uncertainty,
confusing and incomplete message, and participants
who do not share the organization’s values and
assumptions (Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer, 1998).
Generally, crisis is categorized in terms of public
perception, marketing shift, product failure, top
management succession and financial crisis. Recently,
another type of crisis was studied. Racially oriented
crisis is considered another type of crisis that is not
perceived as important in typical studies (Williams &
Olaniran, 2002).
Effective crisis management needs to consider
the importance of public. Different publics possess
different characteristics, then, to manage crisis
effectively, different rhetorical strategies to communicate
with each public is required. Ice (1991), in his study
“Corporate publics and rhetorical strategy: The case
of union carbide’s Bhopal crisis” emphasized the
managing rhetorical strategy as a determinant to the
effectiveness of public relations practitioners to
manage crisis. By categorizing public, crisis manager
can implement appropriate rhetorical strategy with
each public.
Organization can manage crisis by taking both
preventive and restorative approaches. In preventive
approach, issue management by an organization
allows two-way communication between organization
and public to create mutual understanding (Heath,
1997). Issue management may help by reducing the
potential of any trigger event to become a crisis.
Public relations, handling with crisis, are responsible
for developing of a crisis management team, identifying
the high risk area to be encountered by organization,
and structuring, implementation and maintenance of
an overall crisis communication plan (Seeger,
Sellnow & Ulmer, 1998). Though organizations can
take preventive approach to manage crisis, it can be
said that they are not able to prevent all issues all the
time. When an organization fails to detect some
issues and it becomes a crisis, they need the
restorative approach to deal with a crisis.
Benoit’s Image Restoration Strategies
Image restoration is considered as a crisis
c o mmu n i c a t i o n a p p r o a c h i n r e c o v e r i n g a n
organization’s image. Benoit’s theory of image
restoration discourse (1995) explained that “when [a
person or organization] image is threatened, it is often
considered essential to take action to repair that image”
(Benoit & Pang, 2008). Particularly, communication
is considered as the essential means to restore a
person’s or organization’s image after the crisis. By
using communication, an entity allows others to
understand and influence its image through the
formation of people’s experience leading to their
interpretations regarding the organization/ corporation.
Benoit’s image repair theory (1995) offers five
image restoration strategies to understand the image
repair message. The strategies included 1) Denial,
2) Evasion of responsibility: 3) Reduce the
offensiveness of the act: 4) Corrective action:
5) Mortification.
Denial occurs when an organization flat out
denies that the problem exits or that if it does, it not
hurting anyone. There are two tactics of denial
strategy. These are simple denial and shift the blame.
Evasion of responsibility allows an entity to manipulate
public perception and relinquish responsibility for
their actions. There are four tactics of evasion. These
are provocation, defeasibility, accident, and good
intention. Reduce the offensiveness of the act is the
strategy seeking to offer an alternative perspective to
the problem. There are six tactics of reduce
offensiveness strategy. These are bolster (stress good
traits), minimize, differentiate, transcend, attack accuser,
and compensate. Corrective action concerns the
organization attempts to repair the damage by taking
action to solve or prevent recurrence. Mortification,
finally, occurs when the offender apologizes and asks
for forgiveness (Benoit, Blaney, & Brazeal, 2001).
Since the image restoration strategy focuses
primarily on the message factor, as explained by
Benoit (1995), it is clear that image restoration deals
with the process of communication. Accordingly,
communication is considered as the essential means
to restore a person’s or organization’s image. By
using communication, an entity allows others to
understand and influence its image through the
formation of people’s experience leading to their
interpretations regarding the organization/ corporation.
One way to understand the image restoration
message as communication process is through the
perspective of social construction; particularly, the
theory of social construction of reality.
Theory of Social Construction of Reality
Berger and Luckmann (1966) argued that “the
world of everyday life is not only taken for granted
as reality by the ordinary members of society in the
subjectively meaningful conduct of the lives” (p. 19).
From this statement, the fact or truth regarding an
entity, except the scientific truth, is socially
constructed. As explained by Gordon and Pellegrin
(2008), “social reality is not a social fact in its own
right, but is something produced and communicated,
its meaning derived in and through these systems of
communication” (p. 105).
In explaining how language constructs the social
reality, reviewing the original concept of social
construction of reality would provide a better
understanding of how the theory may be applicable
to the study of image restoration. Particularly, how
communication influences and maintains one’s
perception towards a subjective fact towards an
organization, socially-created reality, image or how
image is considered as socially constructed reality
through communication.
According to Berger and Luckmann (1966),
“reality is socially constructed … as a quality
pertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having
a being independent of our own (we cannot “wish
them away”) …“knowledge” as the certainty that
phenomena are real and that they possess specific
characteristics” (p. 1).
From the statement, it is appropriate to consider
reality as socially constructed through knowledge
what we generally take for granted as a priori or
objective fact. As Gergen (1991) notes, truth or fact
is socially constructed, not essentially existing.
Accordingly, the truth about the essence of an
organization’s image is socially constructed.
Moreover, Berger and Luckmann further
explain how language is used to influence one’s
understanding and perception towards an
organization’s image. They asserted that “Language
is capable of transcending the reality of everyday life
altogether. It can refer to experiences pertaining to
finite provinces of meaning, and it can span discrete
sphere of reality” (p. 40).
In understanding social reality as constructed
through social interaction, Berger and Luckmann
(1966) explained three central tenets of social
constructionism. As highlighted in Gordon and
Pellegrin (2008), “One tenet is that conceptions of
reality (including of ourselves) are created through
social interaction. A second tenet is that human
institutions are created through social interactions
and cannot exist independently of human agreement.
Finally, a third tenet, the constructed world of
everyday life is itself an important element in the
maintenance and reconstruction of social reality,
human institutions and ourselves” (p. 105). Through
interaction, communication plays an important role in
assigning, reinforcing and maintaining the social
meaning for each individual based on common
Moreover, Gordon and Pellegrin (2008) also
highlight the significance of social interaction in
producing and reproducing meaning as reality which
rests on four basic assumptions:
Vol. 10, No.1, January-June 2011
1) Reality "does not present itself objectively"
to the viewer, it is understood through human
2) Categories of language are determined by
"social interactions" in force at a particular time;
3) How reality is defined is determined by the
"conventions of communication";
4) Communication behavior constitutes the social
construction of reality
To this point, based on the theory of social
construction of reality, it is possible to link the theory
of social construction of reality to the study of image
restoration. Image is socially constructed through
communication. Also, in restoring the image, it needs
communication in to construct another set of social
reality among different groups of stakeholders. That
is, the theory of social construction of reality will
provide a clear understanding of how strategic image
restoration messages are communicated to different
group of stakeholder as to restore its image.
Particularly, how language was produced and
communicated as the image restoration message to
construct/reconstruct the image.
Image as socially constructed: A stakeholder’s
Benoit and Pang (2008) defined image as “a
subjective impression of an organization formed
through one’s experience with that organization and
interpretation is based on other past experiences” (p.
245). Based on this description, it reflects the
significance of communication as influencing one’s
perception towards an organization/ institution. A
person will develop his or her understanding towards
an organization through interaction with direct
experience of corporate information and/or socially
interact with others in society.
The above statement implicated that an image
is formed or constructed through any form of
communication. This is also applicable to the image
restoration. That is, image can be constructed and/or
reconstructed through communication. An organization
can influence a person’s perception towards an
organization after the crisis by using communication.
To be more precise, the image restoration message
can influence one’s perception towards an organization.
This resonates with the Benoit and Pang (2008)’s
description of significance of communication in
managing image; “so image and image repair both
arise from reality but must be shaped through
communication. Reality clearly influences images,
but rarely do people have a complete knowledge of
the facts, and what they do know is filtered or
interpreted by their personal attitudes and experiences”
(p. 245). It can be said that when people interact,
they do so with the understanding that their
respective perceptions of reality are related, and as
they act upon this understanding their common
knowledge of reality becomes reinforced.
At this point, the theory of social construction of
reality as the theory can provide a clear understanding
of how communication influences and maintains
one’s perception towards a subjective fact towards an
organization, socially-created reality, image or how
image is considered as socially constructed reality
through communication.
According to Berger and Luckmann’s three
tenets, it can be said that the way an organization
communicates its restoring image represents the
reconstruction of reality. By communicating information
regarding an organization’s practice to handle the
situation through various media, different groups of
stakeholder start to learn new reality involving the
r e c o v e r in g . I n a tte mp tin g to u n d e r s ta n d a n
organization’s image restoration message, it is also
important to recognize the existence of multiple
stakeholders in this issue. Since an organization’s
image restoration message is constructed with an aim
to communicate its new image to public and each
message is tailored to different public groups to
persuade them to accept its new image, by focusing
only on the ‘sender’ side, it might now allow
better understanding. To better provide a deep
understanding on this issue, the recognition of
various stakeholders of the issue also needs to be
addressed. Accordingly, to obtain a deep understanding
towards how significant of image restoration message in
constructing and/ or reconstruct the organization image,
the stakeholder theory will be incorporated.
This article goes beyond merely identifying
‘what strategies’ an organization employed to restore
image. Based on Benoit’s image restoration’s
strategies, this study aiming at providing deeper
insight regarding ‘which strategy’ is tailored/directed
to which stakeholders. Due to the fact that
individual’s perception is different depending upon
their background and experiences, it is also important
for an organization to concern that each group of
stake will also interpret and its restoration message
Stakeholder Theory: Following the Stakeholder
Grid to discover how image restoration messages
are directed to specific groups of stakeholders
Understanding stakeholders’ interpretations
in constructing their reality towards the image
restoration message is important. However, most of
the crisis communication studies provide merely
general knowledge demonstrating their significance
Gand, Acquier & Szpirglas (2005); Carpenter, Holt,
& Ware (2006).
The final theory providing a complete picture of
literature review for studying how image restoration
strategic message are designed and directed to
different stakeholders is Stakeholder theory. One of
the most widely studied definitions of stakeholder is
Freeman’s (1984) definition of a stakeholder as
“any group or individual who is affected by the
achievement of the organization’s objectives” (as
cited in Phillips, Robert & Freeman, 2003, p.46).
Based on this definition, Illia and Laurati (2005)
describe three perspectives in studying stakeholder
including; broad, narrow a priori and narrow
situational approach.
The main characteristics of each group of
stakeholder are worth discussion here. Broad
perspective focuses on the stakeholder in terms of the
mass of public opinion. According to Windson
(1992) and Mitchell, Agle and Wood (1997) as cited
in Illia and Laurati (2005), broad stakeholder is
“almost anyone can be a stakeholder since every
entity with a stake in the organization may be
considered relevant” (p.9). This view includes all
stakeholders to be relevant independently of the
relationship they have with the organization. The
second perspective, a narrow a priori, also view the
stakeholder as objective, or predetermined set of
stakeholders categories. That is, this view regarded
the stakeholders mainly as primary and secondary
stakeholder. While the first two perspectives of
stakeholder regard the stakeholder as based on
reason not relevant to the situational context, the
final perspective, the narrow situational approach
emphasizes that stakeholders cannot be predetermined, or classified prior to the situation. The
stakeholders are contingent to the situational context
or subject to the issue. Moreover, the stakeholder
from this perspective as being more fluid and flexible
not fixed, depending on the situation.
Many scholars identify stakeholders from a
narrow a priori approach; for example, M.B.E.
Clarkson (1995); Bendheim, Waddock and Graves
(1997); Davenport (2000); Hillman, Keim and Luce
(2001); and Jawahar and Mclaughlin (2001) (as cited
in Illia & Laurati, 2005, p.10). According to them,
stakeholders are precisely predefined as employees,
shareholders, communities, customers and suppliers,
consumer, investors, stockholders, creditors, trade
associations, government and public. These stakeholders
identified their relevancy in terms of their “continuing
participation in the organization’s activities”; “the
interdependence of the quality management of primary
stakeholder” and “the quality of performance”; “the
co mmitmen t a n d t h e i r l e g i t i ma t e c l a ims o n
organizational corporate citizenship behavior”; “the
power exert of the stakeholder in controlling the
organization’s critical resources to the basic needs of
the organization” (Illia & Laurati, 2005, pp. 10-11).
This article allows both communication scholars
and public relations practitioners to develop a deeper
understanding on image restoration. In addition to
apply the five existing Benoit’s image restoration
strategies in repairing image after the crisis, scholars
will be able to understand ‘how’ the image restoration
message function. That is how communication is
used to create reality. That is language as reality-image-- construction. Also, the knowledge of
stakeholder approach when incorporating with the
image restoration strategies enables the practitioners
i n b e i n g a w a r e o f t h e e x i s t e n c e o f mu l t i p l e
interpretations influencing an individual perception
regarding an organization’s image. Therefore,
practitioners should be strategically design the
restoration message based upon the framework of
socially construction of reality and the
multiinterpretations to successfully communicate with
its stakeholders.
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Communication (Bangkok University-Ohio University).
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