- Currently, the scandals are going viral and growing in size like a snowball at an unusual rate.
- If you are guilty and people believe you are innocent, you will continue to be considered innocent: the people preferred Barabbas to Jesus of Nazareth.
- Professor Benoit identified five strategies: denial, avoidance of responsibility, crime reduction, corrective action, and killing.
Rarely is the day when a scandal does not appear on the news and we believe the world is going to get worse. With or without cause, the reputation of organizations and public figures is being challenged and harshly judged. Fortunately, there is no shortage of communication experts to help with image crises. And although technology has changed, the basis of his advice has remained for years.
Halfway between rhetoric and compelling narrative, I present today a classification developed by Professor William M. Benoit in 1997. His article “Image repair discourse and crisis communication“Still valid. The SCOPUS database even states that 550 subsequent scientific articles have used this for reference. Just look at the news to find out that these arguments still work.”
Would you like to help a politician charged with corruption?
I will be mean and ironic. I’ll make a hypothetical case to illustrate my point. Imagine a public figure accused of profiting from something that was not theirs. For example: committing a traffic offense, vaccination against COVID before it expires, tax evasion or handwriting a contract to a family member.
It doesn’t matter whether the fact he is accused of is true or not. It is important that a newspaper discover the news and publish it. Some later the story jumps to television and internet portals. And networks like Twitter or Reddit will soon be viralizing the scandal.
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Something to keep in mind just in case is this social perception is just as or more important than reality itself. That means that if you are guilty and people believe you are innocent, unfortunately, you are still considered innocent. On the contrary, if you are innocent but people think you are guilty, you will be seen for that. It was like this all his life: the people preferred Barabbas to Jesus (Gospel of John 18:40).
Therefore, rightly or not, our defendant is asking the press to make statements. How can we help you clean up your image?
The five arguments
Professor Benoit examined those who achieved the best communication results after an image crisis and published a list of five discursive strategies: denial, avoidance of responsibility, crime reduction, corrective action and killing.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a soccer player, multinational director, mayor or public figure, if you need to justify yourself in the face of a scandal, these strategies can help you:
1. Rejection. It is the most elementary form. To add more depth to the analysis, we will say that there are two versions:
- Simple denial: the person completely denies the fact. For example: “The accusation is wrong because I never exceeded the speed with my car. “.
- Transfer of blame: where responsibility is transferred to another. Sum up: “Yes what they say is true, I did not go: my cousin drove “.
2. Avoidance of Liability. It’s a slightly more nuanced argument. Here the fact is not denied, but the responsibility is the person. Benoit defined four modalities:
- Provocation: The accused admits his relationship to the offensive, but not through his own will, but through an external factor that “caused” this relationship. For example: “Yes, I was vaccinated against COVID (prematurely) but I went to a hospital and the doctors told me they had extra vaccines that would spoil. And of course I listened to the doctors. “
- Lack of information: the person admits to having participated in the crime but hides behind the lack of prior knowledge. For example: “Yes, it’s true that there was a secret bank account in a foreign country, but I inherited it from my grandmother and didn’t know it existed until she died. “
- Accident: The person admits they made the mistake but is hiding in a setback that is beyond their control. For example: “It is true that help was given to my cousin’s company, but it was a coincidence when I clicked a button on the computer …”.
- Good intent: the person admits participating in the incriminating act but appeals to good faith. For example: “I admit I was wrong. I believed COVID was a bad passenger and took no steps to force people to wear masks. I’m sorry for the thousands of deaths, but I don’t look for bad intentions in my decision. “
3. Reducing the crime. This strategy aims to downplay the consequences of a negative act. The person does not deny the fact or participation in it, but wants to dissolve the perception of negativity. Equivalent to “Not as much” and it has six variants:
- Affirmation of Positive Traits: The person amplifies the positive feelings the public may have about them, making the bad feelings more acceptable. For example: “I know I let you down today, but you know I have had more successes than mistakes so far. Give me another chance and I won’t let you down “.
- Minimization: Similar to the previous one, here we are trying to reduce the effects of negative feelings. For example: “It is true that there has been corruption in my government, but thanks to the fact that we discovered it in time, we will prevent the problem from growing. You can be calm ”.
- Differentiation: The person puts the act they are accused of in the context of other acts that could be worse. For example: “I admit I did wrong, but I think the ruler did worse things before me. “
- Intentional meaning: The accused is trying to create one frame (or framing), which puts the offensive in a broader and more favorable context. For example: “The public works concession to my first cousin’s society was meant to create jobs and wealth for the benefit of the whole country.”
- Attack on the Prosecutor: The person who is already on the offensive tries to discredit their accuser, showing arguments that point to the illegality of the complaint. For example: “This journalist and his newspaper have always criticized us for serving my political enemies … What more can you say about me if it’s not bad? “
- Compensation: The defendant focuses his speech on presenting compensation for the act committed, but does not attach greater importance to the act itself. For example: “Starting tomorrow, we will be delivering free masks to everyone. “, or “We will give all the money from the bank account my grandmother left me in this country to the poor. “.
4. Corrective Action. In conjunction with the previous strategy, the defendant agrees to correct the problem by replacing the Status quo before the offense. This is usually done by creating a corrective action plan that you will then want to evaluate. For example: “Today we will have a clear law and one Create minutes so that such a situation can never arise again from now on. “.
5. Mortification. It’s the ultimate image strategy. The accused, whether guilty or not, takes responsibility for the crime and apologizes for it. In Japan and Germany, political officials involved in scandals are often blamed for events, whether or not they committed them. You step back. And then when it comes to a lawsuit, they are found innocent or guilty. In other countries, however, resignation is a very rare phenomenon.
They say that a falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest. I think it. The fact that so many cases of corruption are known should not lead us to view public life as a series of scandals. Fortunately, for every criminal there are a hundred thousand decent people. In politics too.
In addition, today, unlike other times, we all have a profile in social networks and saying that we do this without thinking has its effect. Today the scandals are going viral, growing in size like a snowball at an unusual rate. This is why William Benoit’s studies are so useful. Whether it is the cheater or the one who is not guilty of anything, everyone has the right to be presumed innocent.
Finally, it should be made clear that Benoit did not invent or suggest these strategies to justify corruption. He only took note of what the best were doing. And believe me, his work does more to expose jokes than to hide them.
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