A Critical Analysis of USAir's Image Repair Discourse

By Benoit, William L.; Czerwinski, Anne | Business Communication Quarterly, September 1997 | Go to article overview

A Critical Analysis of USAir's Image Repair Discourse


Benoit, William L., Czerwinski, Anne, Business Communication Quarterly


On September 8, 1994, a USAir Boeing 737 passenger jet crashed near Pittsburgh, killing 132 people. This was the worst of five crashes involving the nation's sixth largest airline. The airline experienced serious economic consequences as well: "Industry and travel experts said USAir's traffic has suffered due to the September crash" ("USAir Media Blitz," 1994, P. D2). USAir's problem intensified when The New York Times attacked USAir's safety record (Frantz & Blumenthal, 1994). In response, USAir published a series of advertisements in 47 newspapers to repair its reputation. Goffman (1967) explains that "When a face has been threatened, face-work must be done" (p. 27). Similarly, Brown and Levinson (1978) recognize that "people can be expected to defend their faces if threatened" (p. 66). The loss of business after the crash - and USAir's prompt response to The New York Times attack in the form of full page newspaper advertisements - illustrate that these pressures are relevant to corporations as well as individuals. Image threats often motivate people and organizations to attempt verbal redress.

The literature on crisis communication (e.g., Andriole, 1985; Booth, 1993; Fink, 1986; Meyers & Holusha, 1986) tends to focus on what to do before and after a corporate crisis, on identifying important publics, or on the different kinds of corporate crises. Useful as this literature is, it tends to neglect the options available for use within messages. Faced with a crisis, what can a business say?

This article provides a case study in corporate image repair. Using the theory of image restoration discourse, it analyzes USAir's response to the account in The New York Times about the causes of the Pittsburgh crash. It also provides suggestions for including such cases in the classroom to teach strategies of persuasion.

Image Restoration Discourse

Research in sociology and in communication provides fruitful approaches for understanding the choices available in verbal self-defense. Burke (1970), Ware and Linkugel (1973), and Scott and Lyman (1968), for example, present different image repair strategies. Building on this work, Benoit has synthesized a more comprehensive typology and theory of image repair (1995a; see also Benoit, 1995b; Benoit & Brinson, 1994; Brinson & Benoit, 1996).

Threats to an image, personal or corporate, have two critical components - (1) the accused is held responsible for an act; (2) the act is portrayed as offensive - and image repair strategies are organized accordingly. Table 1 summarizes five strategies for addressing issues of responsibility and reducing the act's perceived offensiveness; these strategies are discussed briefly in this section.

Denial

A person accused of wrong-doing may simply deny committing the offensive action (Ware & Linkugel, 1973). Goffman (1971) explains that a spokesperson may also deny that the act occurred (see also Schonbach, 1980; Schlenker 1980; Semin & Manstead, 1983; or Tedeschi & Reiss, 1981). Whether the accused denies that the act occurred or that he or she performed it, denial can, if accepted by the audience, help restore the accused's image.

[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]

For example, in 1991, Pepsi-Cola accused Coca-Cola of charging its other accounts higher prices than it charged McDonald's. Coke replied by denying Pepsi's charges. A letter printed in a trade publication from Frenette, senior vice president and general manager, stressed that these charges "were absolutely false," and that price increases are "universally applied; there were no exceptions" (1991, p. 24). Coca-Cola directly and unequivocally rejected Pepsi-Cola's charges.

A related tactic is to shift the blame, which Burke (1970) calls "victimage" (see also Schonbach, 1980). After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Rawl, chair of Exxon, attempted to shift blame for delays in the cleanup. He "blamed state officials and the Coast Guard for the delay, charging . …

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