Why Technical Communicators Should Care About Apologia

In Apologetic rhetoric, Technical communication on July 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why technical communicators should care about apologia or apologetic rhetoric. Here are a few thoughts I’ve come up with so far.

In today’s challenging economic times, technical communicators around the country need to find new ways to demonstrate their value to their companies (see Hannah Kirk’s article in the July/August 2009 issue of Intercom for more on this subject). Even more importantly, internal departments need your services when it comes to facing accusations of wrongdoing in today’s online environment.

Traditionally, corporate responses to accusations of wrongdoing have been relegated to the fields of communication or mass communications under the title of crisis management or the ancient Greek term apologia (which is defined as a defense or justification of one’s actions). That’s because, in the past, when companies, politicians, or celebrities faced accusations of wrongdoing, they either made a speech, gave an interview to the media, or printed an ad to defend themselves or apologize.

Unfortunately, that mentality has stuck with us today. In fact, in the chapter I wrote for Communication Yearbook 33, I looked at 91 academic articles printed over the last 40 years to see what type of apologia examples were studied. The result wasn’t surprising. Over 80% fell into the categories of speech or traditional media such as newspapers and television. Those categories naturally lend themselves to speech communication and mass communications—as opposed to fields like technical communication.

Why is that a problem?

First, it needlessly limits the number of professionals who are exposed to this type of communication. A public relations professional is probably well versed in crisis management and apologia (or image restoration) strategies, while a technical communicator has likely received little to no training or education in this area.

Second, by focusing so heavily on speech and traditional media, the importance of new media as well as business and technical documents is often overlooked. In reality, new media is already a crucial channel of delivery, and a growing number of technical communicators are already being asked to contribute their skills to help their companies respond to accusations of wrongdoing.

Whether it’s a product recall or malicious behavior by employees, companies are launching multi-prong responses that make use of the skills and training that technical communicators exemplify. Both the Mattel case and the Domino’s case exemplify a transformation in the way companies are responding to accusations of wrongdoing. In both cases, we see skills such as information architecture, html design, flash and javascript coding, video production, technical writing, and new media interactivity. Not to mention the obvious fact that the delivery methods mirror the media that technical communicators already use every day to communicate product information—including corporate or product websites, downloadable PDFs, online videos, and chat features or discussion threads.

These examples demonstrate the crucial roles that technical communicators play in producing as well as delivering corporate responses to accusations of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, however, there is little information or training available to these professionals. But, as is often the case, the lack of information actually creates an opportunity for proactive technical communicators to take initiative, understand the subject matter, assemble a plan, and position themselves and their departments as valuable resources to their companies.

  1. Hi Emil:

    Nicely developed thoughts here. You make a convincing case about why technical communicators should be aware of apologia and the theory behind it. Certainly a lot of apologia comes out of the business world.

    To play devil’s advocate, I would suggest that just because technical communicators need to be schooled in apologia rhetoric does not make that rhetoric technical communication–unless the apology involves some kind of technical explanation, or the case entails some kind of technology. As a point of comparison, technical communicators need to be aware of management theory if they are doing work in a big organization, although that does not mean that management is a form of technical communication.

    My concern is that we not try to make everything technical communication, thereby sapping the field of a core area of focus. To me, technical communication should involve some kind of technology as the subject area. If it involves a technical topic, such as global warming, but without technology, it would be scientific communication–a cousin to TC. If it involves neither, but deals with things such as Rwandan genocide it is rhetoric, but not really technical communication in my view. Of course, as you make the case, a technical communicator aware of the nuances of such apologia in Rwanda or anywhere will be better at his or her communication for that knowledge–just as he or she would be better for a knowledge of management theory or economics. Knowing technical communication and being a technical communicator for me are not always the same.

    • Good points, Ken. Let me see if I can address them a little bit.

      In the post above, I try to make the first case that technical communicators can increase their value in these difficult economic times if they: (1) understand how their company can respond to accusations of wrongdoing, and (2) more importantly, understand and can articulate what role they can play in that response.

      As I say in the post, too often the skills and experience of the technical communicator are overlooked in studies of apologetic rhetoric. The focus is on speech or communication in general. However, more and more, delivery channels that are familiar to technical communicators and skills that are required by technical communicators are being called on to respond to accusations of wrongdoing. Therefore, this presents an opportunity for practitioners to increase their value to other departments as well as participate in high-profile situations for their company.

      The second point you make regarding whether apologia is technical communication–or is more broadly rhetoric–is a good one. I’ve made the argument in my dissertation that by studying the role of apologetic rhetoric in Rwanda’s gacaca trials, I am studying an important element of restorative justice that has implications on the process by which communities reconcile. In saying this, I am considering restorative justice or this process of reconciliation as a form of technical communication similar to David Dobrin’s argument that technology includes the “way that people, machines, concepts, and relationships are organized” and to Katherine Durack’s example that technical communication includes “the knowledge of when and how to irrigate fields, and the entire set of human actions that comprise this method of farming.” In the case of my dissertation, I am examining the process of how to restore and reconcile communities torn apart by violence and genocide through the use of apologies.

      Admittedly, this argument may not be convincing to some people. However, I believe even those people can more clearly see the strong element of technology or technical communication in online product recall information. From the apologetic rhetoric standpoint, these online recalls very often include elements of apologia, including justifications, bolstering, and even apologies. From a technical communication standpoint, they include safety information; technical descriptions of product specifications, problems, or corrective procedures; and instructions for returning products (Mattel’s product recall and safety information provides a good example of this). Such examples, I believe, demonstrate the technical aspects you call for in your post.

      In other words, I agree that not all apologetic rhetoric is technical communication. Some instances may be, while others may not. Beyond those definitions, however, I argue there are ample opportunities for technical communicators to become involved in responses to accusations of wrongdoing.

  2. Emil,

    I look forward to reading the Intercom article. Tech comm undergrads could definitely benefit from additional training in rhetorical studies. Where do you think such training might fit into the TC curriculum? Where I teach, training in rhetoric seems to be integrated into the undergrad curriculum informally. Only recently have we introduced a formal course devoted to rhetorical studies, but I’m not sure that students understand yet how it fits into their broader study of TC and their career goals.


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Sean. The broader questions and concerns that you and Pete bring up in your comments here are important curriculum questions that need to be addressed. At this point, I’ve been thinking more in terms of initial steps of understanding.

      First, for current practitioners, I argue we need resources–such as articles in trade magazines and even non-academic books directed specifically at technical communicators–that introduce the subject of apologetic rhetoric to technical communicators and help them understand and develop their roles in this important form of business communication. Such resources should include explicit discussions of rhetoric that you and Pete mention.

      Second, for students of technical communication, I argue we need to include case studies of apologetic rhetoric in textbooks and course work. A good example of a case study that could be included is Mattel’s delivery of product recall information online with elements of apologia as well as numerous skills and resources that are familiar to technical communicators.

      Professors should also integrate apologetic rhetoric assignments into technical communication coursework. For example, they can bring real product recall situations or accusations of wrongdoing in the news into the classroom and assign student groups to provide solutions to address these problems. What needs to be communicated? How can/should the company’s corporate website be used? What role can/should social media play? What documents will consumers need to see and download? Is video important? If so, how–for a CEO apology, to demonstrate how to find product numbers and identify recalled products, to provide instructions for addressing the problem? How are all of these pieces integrated in terms of information architecture? By positioning real-world scenarios in such a way, professors could help instigate discussions not only about tools, software and delivery methods that can be used, but also discussions about the rhetorical goals behind the apologetic rhetoric.

      Although these ideas are related more to individual courses or continuing education–as opposed to the broader curriculum decisions that you point out–I believe they provide starting points as well as important ways to help technical communicators add more value to their corporations.

  3. If you haven’t read the first chapter of Dorothy Winsor’s _Writing Like an Engineer_, you should. In it, she outlines some of the problems associated with teaching rhetoric. She points out that one of the problems has to do with the fact that novices, in any field, have a tendency to undervalue rhetoric UNTIL they begin participating in the professional practice of that field. In other words, rhetoric isn’t real until it’s part of their job. So the challenge to meeting your goal might be that we’ll have to find a way to make real that which hasn’t yet happened; in other words, getting real-world situations packaged in such a way that those not involved can see the role that rhetoric played in that scenario. Having engineers study the Challenger case, for instance, is a good start.

    A corollary challenge is getting technical communicators out of their comfort zone, outside the documentation cubicle, and talking to others about how rhetoric is used to create help manuals, warning labels, websites, and brochures, and then creating common ground by pointing out the similarities to the kinds of writing those non-TCers are creating. Everyone’s got a horror story of email gone wrong: share ’em and get the ball rolling.

    Looking forward to that article, man.

  4. Emil –

    I was just today thinking about the argument that “technical communicators need to generate research that demonstrates our value.” But I don’t think that’s the case at all: I think we have LOADS of data that supports our value, and valuation. Instead, what I think we’re lacking is a package–the context–for that data. In other words, we produce research in the form of case studies, rhetorical analyses, ethnographies, surveys, quantitative and qualitative data, but we don’t seem to be putting that “out there” into the public sphere. Ironically, I think that (as you say) many of us are not trained in apologetics. We’re rhetoricians, but we keep trying to “let the facts speak for themselves,” when any rhetoric student already knows that facts don’t speak for themselves. People, instead, provide the rhetorical package for the facts so that the audience can see context and purpose.

    Yeah–really struck a chord for me, man. Nice post.

    • Thanks Pete. I agree that we have loads of data and skills that would already help affirm the value of technical communicators. I think we just need to think about how other departments or the company at large would need to have those skills and that experience positioned so they understand the value. From my perspective, apologia/apologetic rhetoric seems like a natural place that technical communicators can start and can make an immediate impact.

      BTW, I’m actually working on an article to submit to Intercom that will start the conversation regarding apologetic rhetoric and technical communication–and this post will undoubtedly be part of that article.

      Any input people have is welcome.

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