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Before we learn how to handle rumors, let us understand a little more about them. A rumor is the opposite of fact. A fact is verified piece of information supported by data whereas a rumor is an unverified piece of information, which is unsubstantiated by any data. Since rumors are not backed by any data, they are normally quite exaggerated pieces of information and can be far from truth. We have already read about management of corporate crisis.

rumour management

To understand a situation, people start making guesses to the best of their understanding, based on their experiences; and before you know it, a rumor has started. Some rumors are harmless while some can ruin the image of a person or an entity. Some rumors are started with the intention of damaging the reputation of the person or thing. There are several intentions in the mind of the rumor starter. Following are some of the reasons :

Feel Better – To cover the deficiency of their own and to put the other party in a bad light

Fit In – To fit in amongst a new players and to appear more knowledgeable than they actually are

Gain Attention – To explain an ambiguous situation and captures attention of others.

Improve their Power/Position – To harm their competitor’s reputation, gain power and improve their position.

Take Revenge – Create a rumor in vengeance, in order to take retribution from an entity

To Pass Time – As a cure to their boredom!

In October 2008, a rumor that Apple CEO Steve Jobs suffered a major heart attack circulated. Although the rumor would be proven false, its rapid transmission and initial adoption as fact by investors had substantial impact, resulting in a $9 billion market value loss. More recently, a hoax featuring a McDonald’s restaurant sign asserting that African-Americans would pay an extra $1.50 to be served created a tidal wave of discussion among customers in the Twittersphere.

How to Stop a Rumor

Here are three strategies for stopping a rumor:
1. Outright denial
2. Re-association
3. Questioning confidence.

1. Denial

The first strategy, denial, is widely used and involves a brand stating outright a rumor is untrue. In fact, McDonald’s decided to respond to the rumor cited in the introduction by refuting the facts and stating how they oppose the company values.

Unfortunately, a denial may strengthen the association between the brand and the rumor as it can alert consumers previously unaware of the rumor to it. Denials can also be bet with skepticism since they are often unilaterally self-serving for a company. Even upon hearing the denial, consumers have been shown to sometimes fail to remember the denial (i.e., This restaurant does not serve worm meat) and instead remember the affirmation (i.e., This restaurant does serve worm meat). Indeed, we found that an outright denial failed to change consumers’ behavior in response to a rumor. Specifically, when a brand denied using worm meat, consumers were as unwilling to eat at the restaurant as when the brand had done nothing at all.


2. Reassociation

The second strategy, re-association, was pioneered two decades ago by Kellogg faculty who, recognizing the problems with denial, suggested it was sometimes easier to introduce an upside to a rumor. A brand might re-associate this rumor with positive information by suggesting it is a delicacy used in French cuisine. Because French cuisine has a positive connotation in people’s mind, it was suggested that pairing, or re-associating the rumor with a positive fact can alleviate the negative effects of a rumor on consumers’ behavior.

Indeed, we found that this strategy was more effective in increasing consumers’ intention to eat at a restaurant.  Of course, re-association might not always be possible for a brand as there may not be an upside that can be easily paired with a rumor.

3. Questioning confidence.

The final strategy rests on the recognition that rumors come to be seen as fact. This is because of the loss of doubt associated with them. Simply asking consumers whether or not they could be confident of the rumor based on what they heard had the strongest mitigating impact on the rumor. When consumers question their confidence about the rumor that a restaurant might have used worm meat; consumers were more likely to visit the restaurant using this strategy compared to both re-association and denial strategies.

Unlike denial, this strategy reduces the self-serving component as it does not deny the rumor. It puts consumers in control of assessing the validity, which, in the case of a false rumor, is most likely mired in doubt.

In the end, negative rumors can be damaging and costly for a brand. By understanding the various causes of rumors, more effective counter-rumor strategies can be developed. This will help combat and reduce the negative impact of rumors on companies’ reputation and growth.

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