Crisis communications: Battling rumours online

Posted on December 8, 2008 
Filed Under Crisis communications


Psychology Today Nov/Dec issue has a great piece about rumours: The 8½ Laws of Rumor Spread by Taylor Clark and an accompanying solutions sidebar: When the Rumor Hits Home – What to do if you find yourself the subject of a rumor by Jay Dixit.

Clark cites an impressive panel of rumour experts including Barbara and David Mikkelson of hoax-busting site snopes.com, Martin Bourgeois, a rumour researcher at Florida Gulf Coast University, Nicholas DiFonzo of Rochester Institute of Technology, sociologist Duncan Watts, Chip Heath, Stanford business professor and co-author of Made To Stick, and Ohio University psychologist Mark Pezzo.

Her 8.5 rules:

1. Successful rumours needle our anxieties and emotions.
Example rumour: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, water wasn’t the only thing that flooded the city. Grim rumours flourished: Sharks have infested the water! Terrorists planted bombs in the levees! Murdered babies and piles of corpses filled the Superdome!

2: Rumours stick if they’re somewhat surprising but still fit with our existing biases.
Eg rumour: President George W. Bush supposed quote: “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur.'” Fits in with belief that Bush is a klutz.

3: Easily swayed people are more important than influential people in passing on a rumour.
Kids, like some adults, are credulous, and credulous people make rumours go. Eg rumour: Bubble Yum was made with spider eggs.

4: The more you hear a rumour, the more you’ll buy it — even if you’re hearing that it’s false. Eg rumour: Barack Obama is secretly a radical Muslim who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance and was sworn into the Senate on the Qur’an. Repeating a rumour, or even hearing its denial repeatedly, makes people believe it comes from a credible source.

5: Rumours reflect the zeitgeist.
Rumours have the greatest chance of multiplying when the topic is current. Eg rumour: When you flash your brights at an oncoming vehicle without its lights on, you might be inviting a gang member to kill you. It’s always in mid-Sept when the rumour surfaces. Headlights are on people’s minds. That’s why you never hear it in the dead of winter or the height of summer.

6: Sticky rumours are simple and concrete.
Vivid details stick in the mind. Eg rumours: We only use 10 percent of our brains. The Great Wall of China can be seen from space. People swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep.

7: Rumours that last are difficult to disprove. Eg: Loch Ness monster. Reason: It’s a big lake.

8: We are eager to believe bad things about people we envy.
Celebs are easy targets and we are eager to believe the worst to prick the bubble of adulation around them.

8.5: Sometimes, there is no “why”.
Often, we tell remarkable tales to build relationships or show off our yarn-spinning prowess — not necessarily because we think they’re true.

Clark’s rules borrow heavily from Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made To Stick”, which I recently got my hands on. They postulate that ideas that stick must be Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and turned into a great Story. (In short and cornily S.U.C.C.E.S.s)


(Photo credit: Brian Watters)

Dixit’s sidebar quotes DiFonzo on some solutions:

1. DON’T LIE. If the rumour is true, don’t try to deny it. If people are motivated, they’ll figure out the facts.

2. DENY THE RUMOUR IF IT’S FALSE. “A denial still raises questions in people’s minds, but properly done, it helps inoculate people against believing a false rumour.”

3. USE A TRUSTED NEUTRAL THIRD PARTY TO REFUTE THE RUMOUR. “When Proctor & Gamble had a terrible time with false rumours alleging they were Satanists, they recruited Christian religious leaders to help refute the rumour.”

4. PROVIDE A POINT-BY-POINT REFUTATION. The more specific and concrete you are, the more likely it is your refutation will be believed and remembered.

5. PROVIDE A CONTEXT FOR WHY YOU’RE REFUTING IN THE FIRST PLACE. Don’t just deny a rumour in a vacuum, saying, “Bob Talbert is not a member of the mafia,” “I am not a crook,” or “My products are safe.” People will wonder why you’re saying this and may conclude you’re trying to cover something up.

Better to do as Barack Obama did and explain, “You may have recently heard right-wing smears questioning Obama’s Christian faith. These assertions are completely false and designed to play into the worst kind of stereotypes. The truth is that Barack Obama is a committed and active Christian.” By explaining why he was refuting the rumours, Obama provided a context that made his denial more believable.

Additionally, I would suggest some rules of my own on the use of social media in fighting rumours:

1. KEEP EMPLOYEES INFORMED: Your staff may be the prime source of a damaging rumour. Keep them informed either through your internal blog or wiki. Do a one-to-one if you have to.

2. GO PUBLIC ON YOUR WEBSITE: Barack Obama’s FightTheSmears.com and Coca-Cola Facts & Myths are two great examples of this.

3.CULTIVATE STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE MEDIA: When a rumour is about to break, sometimes the only thing that can prevent it going viral is your credibility with news editors. Work on those relationships, so they count when it matters. Otherwise…

4.BE PREPARED: Have planned responses ready. A well-written holding statement released quickly can turn the tide to your side right from the start.

5.KEEP TRACK: Monitor your brand and keywords like your CEO’s name and “X Brand Sucks” using Google Alerts, Yahoo Alerts, Google Blogsearch, Twitter Advanced Search, Yahoo Pipes and HowSociable.

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