What are the best strategies to use when attempting to repair image after a public scandal?

What are the best strategies to use when attempting to repair image after a public scandal?

1 Expert Answer

Kevin Stein

Director MAPC Program/Professor of Communication,  Southern Utah University

There are no easy answers to this question and public relations professionals are sometimes confounded any time a new scandal arises. Just when they think they've got a good playbook in place for dealing with controversy, someone will come along and do something crazy like Justin Timberlake tearing off Janet Jackson's shirt during a Super Bowl halftime performance or crematorium owner Ray Marsh stacking up corpses behind his place and business and giving the relatives urns of concrete rather than the remains.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion." This means that professionals have to be somewhat flexible in developing strategies for image repair. An awareness of what scandals have occurred before and what strategies were used in hundreds of cases should help one to hone in on just the right combination of strategies. That being said, there are some strategies that are generally more effective than others.

The first of these is the strategy of mortification, wherein one takes full responsibility for his/her actions. A person accused of wrongdoing should say "I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me." Often, however, people will waffle on this strategy and say things that evade responsibility, such as "I'm sorry you were offended" or "I regret that this incident occurred." Other times, they will combine their mortification with other evasive strategies, such as provocation ("He made me do it") or minimization ("The thing I did was not that bad"). Sometimes the accused person is limited in what responses he/she can provide because of specific elements of the context. If a person was caught on video doing something egregious, he/she can't say the act didn't happen or that it was less significant than it appeared to be for audiences who watched the video. In short, a good rule of thumb is to take full responsibility and to offer some form of corrective action (restitution). It sounds so simple and you might wonder why anybody would pay consultants for this advice. Well, people are not good at following advice because their pride sometimes gets in the way and they can't resist the temptation to use strategies that detract from the sincerity of their apologies.

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