Dealing with Internet rumours

Posted on October 2, 2009 
Filed Under Crisis communications

Shout out to Neil Gibbons, editor of UK-based Communicate Magazine, for the use of my comments on countering Internet rumours in an article entitled, “Ugly rumours” in their most recent issue.

“In the digital age, a reputation that has taken years to build can be destroyed in seconds – by anyone,” says Julian Matthews of international media training consultancy Trinetizen. “Rumours can spread via the internet like wildfire. And what’s scary is that anyone can have an impact on your brand. An especially motivated, persistent and vindictive individual can be a nightmare.”

And later…

“Official tweeters on corporate Twitter accounts already help to manage the discussion of Zappos, Honda, Dell, Comcast and Southwest Airlines. “They do a great job addressing potential crises in real-time,” says Matthews.”

Some valid points brought up in the piece:
1. PERMANENT SECTION: Internet rumours spread quickly and can linger long after you have addressed it officially – if necessary, have a permanent section on your website addressing the issue.

2. TOUGH CALL: Lawyer Simon Smith, partner at Schillings, said: “If you don’t act it may be perceived as a tacit admission, if you do respond it can give credence to the rumour and validation to those spreading it. It is a difficult decision.”

3. MONITOR NOW: Watching should be a company’s first line of defence: it can only manage rumour if it knows what’s being said. “Every rumour that pops up should be considered a credible threat in the first instance,” says Peter Roberts, senior associate director of Hill & Knowlton Issues & Crisis.

4. PLAN YOUR TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT NOW: Paul Miller of media intelligence firm Cision says: “If it’s just low-level, respond to the user and ask for a retraction… if the rumour is being mentioned by top bloggers or the mainstream media, I’d advise putting something on the corporate website.”

5.ENGAGE CONSTITUENTS NOW: Certain brands are fortunate enough to have a loyal, sometimes evangelical, online following. By engaging with these advocates, a company can have much of its work done for it. A rebuttal from a loyal customer may carry more weight than a company spokesperson.

6. BE PRO-ACTIVE OR YOU MIGHT FAN THE FIRE: Roberts says: “The biggest pitfall is inflaming an issue. The risks will be things like perpetuating an issue that would otherwise have died away all on its own; and bringing legitimacy to the rumour by giving it your brand’s credibility in a response. The ideal approach is to be an active participant in online conversations, both listening and engaging. The better you know the environment in which you’re operating, the easier it is to manage, and the less likely it will be that an issue will take you by complete surprise.”

My complete reply to Mr Gibbons:

In our experience, as media trainers and consultants, we find many companies underestimate the damage an email, blog post, photo or video can do to their corporate reputations.

Some companies have crisis management plans tucked away in a drawer somewhere which have not been updated in three years or more.

These plans possibly do not include the crisis communications plan as a subset, nor do they incorporate responding via online communications as a crucial channel.

We have seen in the famous cases of Wendy’s (finger in bowl of chilli), Kryptonite (bike locks easily opened with ballpoint pens), Dell (exploding notebooks due to faulty lithium ion batteries) and Tommy Hilfiger (false racist statements attributed to the founder apparently said on the Oprah show) that speed is of the essence.

The fact is in the digital age, a reputation that has taken years to build can be destroyed in seconds — by anyone. Rumours of a corporate impropriety or an incriminating video of a faulty product can spread via the Internet like wildfire. It can cause serious damage to corporate reputations and substantially reduce shareholder value.

We always tell clients: “If it’s good news get it out fast, if it’s bad news get it out faster.” The caveat here is to have your facts in order when you decide to face the media or respond to the rumour. Most companies can’t react quickly enough. They feign ignorance of new media when outed, suggesting lack of resources or time.

In our training, we emphasize that companies have to get pro-active in their approach to online reputation management.

They have to employ online tracking tools and dashboards to track every mention of their brand, products and services in blogs, social networks, photo- and video-sharing sites and Twitter.

They must have a long term strategy in place to engage with “online constituents”. These may be your customers, prospects, partners, suppliers, stakeholders or whatever term you may want to use for the 1.5 billion people online.

What’s scary, and I can empathize with many corporations on this, is that anyone can have an impact on your brand.

An especially motivated, persistent and vindictive individual can be a nightmare.

With an online rumour, it’s a four-way problem: One, it is difficult to identify source. Two, you can’t tell how widespread it is. Three, if you choose to ignore, it may go viral later. Four, if you choose to fight it, it may attract even more negative attention than it deserves.

The worst rumours are those that are partly true. People are likelier to believe that where there is smoke, there is fire. An all-encompassing denial may seem insincere, fan the flames and amplify the rumour rather than kill it. In every case, it’s always better to stick to the truth.

My advice is if it is an email or blog post, go to the source and engage the person. If there are factual errors or inaccuracies, point it out as a representative of the company. If you are at fault, use the 4As method: accept, acknowledge, apologize and act. Whatever the rumour, do not take it personally, even if it is a personal attack!

You will find it is often the case that once the aggrieved person is officially acknowledged and a solution provided, he or she will likely be accepting of the remedial action. The person may be even blog positively about it, which is the ideal outcome.

On Twitter, you can see the official tweeters of companies in Zappos, Honda, Dell, Comcast and Southwest Airlines, do a great job addressing potential crises in real-time.

Rumours that are persistent and longterm need to be addressed with a consistently updated page, a blog, mini-site or a complete separate site.

The Coca-Cola Company has addressed persistent rumours on its Coca-Cola Facts and Myths section of its website. Barack Obama used to tackle the many rumours during his presidential campaign. Lionel Menchaca, the chief blogger of Dell Inc, was the first to acknowledge the fiery notebook issue when it blew up on the net.

Corporations, who care about their reputations, need to test the waters. They need to start listening and engaging with people online, it’s a skill that can only be honed through trial and error. It requires learning a new language, less of the corporatespeak and legalese that bog down real communication.

They may begin with at least one channel, a blog, a Twitter account, or Facebook page, to encourage conversations, to listen and gauge what their constituents are saying. They have to start getting their feet wet soon before the swirling tide starts to rise around them.


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