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Image Repair in Crisis Communication  

William L. Benoit

Image repair theory observes that threats to image (for individuals, groups, and organizations, such as companies or countries) are inevitable. Because reputation is important, criticisms usually provoke a response, defense, or image repair message(s). Each attack (each criticism) has two components, offensiveness and blame. Defenses can address either component (e.g., arguing that an act was offensive or rejecting blame for it). Five general strategies and 14 tactics exist for image repair. Perceptions are key in image repair: the audience’s perceived image of the target prompts criticism and attack; the audience’s perceptions of the message influence the effectiveness of a defense. Those who feel impelled to create image repair messages may face one or more audiences; the image concerns of various audiences may overlap or may be different. This means the defender must decide which audiences to address and develop image repair messages with this in mind. One must select one or more image repair strategies that the defender believes will be most effective with the target audience(s) and embed that strategy in one or more messages. Note that a defender should choose the most effective strategy or strategies; adding in more strategies does not necessary improve the defense. The defender must decide which medium or media should be used to get the message(s) to audience(s). Image repair theory was developed to help understand threats to reputation, face, or image. Such threats are commonplace in human interaction, including contexts such as interpersonal communication, public communication, and social media.


Crisis Communication  

Matthew Seeger

Crisis communication may be understood as the process of creating and exchanging messages between interdependent stakeholders in conditions of high uncertainty, threats to high-priority goals, and the need for immediate response created by a crisis. This process occurs through established channels and networks of communication, using a variety of message forms. Feedback, message consistency, message tailoring, message reach, transparency and openness, immediacy, credibility, and coordination with key groups, among other factors, are related to effectiveness. Communication within the context of crisis is necessary for coordination, sense-making, effective response, recovery, renewal, learning, and the development of resilience. Processes of communication generally follow the developmental nature of crises from pre-crisis conditions where risks develop and incubate to post-crisis conditions where social and organizational structures, processes, and norms are reconstructed. Crisis communication is closely related to risk communication that concerns the ongoing process of exchanging messages to monitor, understand, and manage risks. Effective communication is essential to the successful management of crises, and communication functions should be included in crisis and risk policy formation and planning as well as response and recovery. Communication may also promote the development of resilience and contribute to system renewal.


Legitimacy Strategies and Crisis Communication  

Jesper Falkheimer

Legitimacy and crisis are closely related concepts. A crisis may even be viewed as a process of legitimation. Legitimacy is a collective perception about which actors and institutions that have the right to rule, regulate, and decide. Crises put legitimacy at stake and may, depending on the premises and management strategies, challenge, enhance, or impair legitimacy. Legitimacy and communication are entwined into each other. Legitimacy as a process is dependent on communication in its original sense: ritual communication as a sacred ceremony that unites people and creates a community. When legitimacy is put at stake, organizations and other actors use strategic communication to respond to, confront, and impact the outcome by the use of different crisis (or legitimacy) communication strategies and tactics. But while legitimacy is an old concept, the premises for handling legitimacy have changed. One way to view this shift, from a societal theoretical standpoint, is to focus the shift between modernity and late modernity as an interpretative framework. Increased diversity and mobility, globalization, reflexivity, and mediation are new premises for legitimacy work. The multivocal and multifaceted character of late modern society challenges organizational as well as societal legitimacy, especially in crisis situations. Political debates and critical reasoning questioning the role and actions of different social institutions are necessary from a democratic standpoint, but when core societal institutions are delegitimized, risks occur. This may be happening in several Western societies, with increased polarization and fundamental questioning of important institutions. Crises (e.g., the coronavirus pandemic) and how they are handled and managed by existing institutions may be radical turning points of legitimacy in governance. Crisis management and communication have developed as possible tools for organizations to handle legitimacy crises. Simplified, one may use three theories of legitimacy strategies in crisis as developed in the applied field of crisis communication. These three theories include image repair theory (rhetoric), situational crisis communication theory, and a broader array of alternative network and complexity theory.