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Ugly rumours
Monday, 07 September 2009 13:28

The digital grapevine is teeming with untruths, flaky misconceptions and malicious fibs. With viral rumours transmitted at a faster pace than ever, how can organisations challenge the chatter and protect their brand? Neil Gibbons reports:

When Sgt Howard C. Wright heard the news, he was sickened. His friend – like him, a serving member of the US Marines – had told him that coffee chain Starbucks had stopped supplying the military with donations of coffee because it didn’t support the war or anyone taking part in it. His friend has contacted the company directly and had apparently heard it from the horse’s mouth.

That night, sat in front of television news of the Iraq war claiming more American lives, Sgt Wright could feel his blood boiling. Which is when he powered up his computer and composed the email.

“Dear everyone,” he wrote to ten of his friends. “Please pass this along to anyone you know. This needs to get out in the open...”

That was in August 2004. Within days, the email had taken on a life of its own, spreading virally across the world and creating a fire storm of negative brand perception that Starbucks couldn’t hope to put back in the box – despite the rumour being entirely untrue.

Not that Starbucks didn’t try to quell the whispers. The firm contacted Sgt Wright directly, expressing its admiration for military personnel and emphasising that many of its employees showed their support by donating coffee themselves. A chastened Sgt Wright even circulated the correction himself – “I did a wrong thing that needs to be cleared up. Starbucks supports men and women in uniform. Now I ask that you all pass this email around to everyone you passed the last one to.” And yet the perception lingers to this day.

“We get it every few weeks,” says Starbucks VP of global communications Valerie O’Neil. “Somebody will forward it to me and say, ‘Do you know about this?’ Oh boy, do we.”

Mind you, Starbucks isn’t alone. The instantaneous nature of digital communication is allowing the misguided and the mischievous to spread harmful rumours at lightning speed. Did you know, for example, that Steve Jobs has died? Or that tampons contain asbestos designed to make women bleed more during menstruation and buy more feminine hygiene products? Perhaps you heard about the girl whose jaw welled up after eating Taco Bell only to discover she was incubating cockroach eggs? Or that Kentucky Fried Chicken had to change its name to KFC because the company cannot legally say its product is chicken when the poultry is too genetically-modified to merit the name?

All are untrue, but all have been bandied about the internet as gospel.

This isn’t just thin-skinned companies complaining about being misunderstood. “Rumours are more than just irritating,” says Simon Smith, partner at Schillings, a law firm specialising in protecting reputation. “What starts as a small spark in a backstreet blog becomes a raging fire in the mainstream press. 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.”

At its worst, online tittle-tattle can be devastating to a business, eroding shareholder confidence or creating a global belief that a particular product is flawed.

“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 an have an impact on your brand. An especially motivated, persistent and vindictive individual can be a nightmare.”

Just ask Apple. When unfounded rumours circulated about a delay to the launch of the iPhone, millions of pounds were knocked off the firm’s share price before a retraction could be put out. (The firm declined to comment for this article.)

Nerve-shredding stuff. But the danger of online rumours shouldn’t be overstated, says Simon Goldsworthy, senior lecturer in Public Communication at the University of Westminster.

“Much of what appears is the digital equivalent of the outpourings of the green ink brigade. Online comment may spread more quickly and stick around on search engines indefinitely, but there’s so much of it that most is ignored. Organisations should bear that in mind.”

Rumour-mongering is no new phenomenon. For decades, Procter & Gamble has been plagued by an almost laughable rumour that its president told a TV talk show host that part of the Cincinnati company’s profits go to the Church of Satan. Further ‘proof’ lay in the company’s ‘man in the moon’ logo – the curlicues of his beard were said to form an array of 6s. Too ridiculous to merit a response? Procter & Gamble didn’t think so. In the early 1980s, it undertook mass mailings, media denials, and even initiated lawsuits against those who have fomented the story. Today, its website links to several independent sources on the subject, including Snopes.com, and it has now changed its logo entirely. A spokesmen for Proctor & Gamble declined to comment.

But it is fair to say that technological and behavioural change has made online rumour a growing menace. Jonathan Hemus of Insignia PR specialises in online and crisis communications and has no doubt that social media is playing its part.

“The amount of conversation and chatter is exploding,” he says. “Social media and internet communications mean the spread happens so much more quickly, reaching more people and crossing international boundaries.”

According to Peter Roberts, senior associate director of Hill & Knowlton Issues & Crisis, social media does two things incredibly well: “The first is creating an environment where people can communicate one-to-many, instantly. The second is the observer’s view of a conversation. Thanks to social media, we can now watch a conversation unfold.”

And watching should be a company’s first line of defence: it can only manage rumour if it knows what’s being said. Employing online tracking tools and dashboards allows a company to track every mention of the brand, products and services.

“We recommend listening to pretty much everything,” says Paul Miller of media intelligence firm Cision. “It doesn’t matter how visible the rumour is at that stage. It used to be that, if a comment appeared on a blog that was only visited three times in the last year, you’d let it go. That’s not the way it works anymore. It can spread incredibly fast.”

“If a comment appeared on a blog that was only visited three times in the last year, you’d let it go. That’s not the way it works anymore. It can spread incredibly fast”

So, having picked up on a rumour, when should a company take steps to refute it? “Every rumour that pops up should be considered a credible threat in the first instance,” says Roberts. “A little digging might show it to be insignificant, but err on the side of caution when conducting an initial assessment.”

Of course, a pre-defined strategy will remove some of the panic during this initial investigation.

According to Jon Hickman, lecturer in Interactive Cultures at Birmingham City University’s School of Media, a measured and planned approach will ensure that these are dealt with efficiently and proportionally.

“The US Air Force drew up a flow chart which they use when deciding how they respond to online discussions about their activities,” he says. “This was picked up on by people such as web strategist Jeremiah Owyang and popularised.”

Preparation is key because it provides communicators with a tried-and-tested approach to managing an issue, and the skills and training to build competence, says Roberts. “However, you can’t plan for every scenario. We recommend developing an approach that’s congruent with your brand’s identity, and consistent with the way that the company communicates the rest of the time. Congruence builds confidence with your stakeholders, who’ll see your company as competently managing the issue.”

Having decided that a rumour can’t go unchallenged, a company needs to set out its terms of engagement.

The scale of its response will, says Miller, depend on how and where the rumour has spread. “If it’s just low-level, respond to the user and ask for a retraction. But there will become a stage when it enters the public realm, and that’s when you should be entering into a public dialogue. And if the rumour is being mentioned by top bloggers or the mainstream media, I’d advise putting something on the corporate website.”

Given its role in facilitating viral distribution, social media is often the appropriate forum for responding to online rumour.

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.

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. And, says Hemus, a rebuttal carries more weight when it comes from a third-party than if
delivered by a company spokesperson.

Hickman points to the growing employment of ‘conversation agencies’. “They aim to locate and respond to negative conversations on behalf of brands and corporations.” One such agency, We Are Social, says it help brands to “engage in social media by having meaningful conversations with people and igniting positive word of mouth through online reputation management, conversation response, corporate blogs, advocacy programmes, influencer campaigns, community building, social applications and conversational campaigns”.

Maybe this is a safer way to engage, because responding directly to rumour is fraught with danger. That’s why, according to Simon Goldsworthy, “more often than not a direct response is not called for: indeed, generating conflict in this way may simply be a good way of generating bad news.”

Hill & Knowlton’s Roberts agrees: “The biggest pitfall is inflaming an issue,” he says. “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.”


From the scurrilous to the ridiculous
Untrue rumours that somehow caught hold

•Red Bull contains a dangerous stimulant designed by the US govt to motivate soldiers in Vietnam
•Harry Potter books contain underlying messages which has caused children to turn to Satanism
•Underarm deodorants “increase the risk of cancer” due to proximity of application to lymph nodes.
•Designer and urban outfitter Tommy Hilfilger is a racist – and apparently admitted as much on Oprah.
•Bananas can carry the “flesh-eating Klingerman virus”, a scare that cost the industry more than £20 million
•A Teletubbies file distributed on the internet through email attachments infects hard drives with a virus if you download the file
•Instant noodles have an edible layer of wax inside their containers which coats the stomach and causes liver problems


Separating fact from fiction
As Starbucks will attest: some rumours just won’t die down. In a more concerted effort to tackle them, some companies are setting up dedicated microsites or sections of the corporate website to fight fiction with fact.

Starbucks now has a dedicated Rumor Response page on its website along with several links to myth-busting website Snopes.com and other sites. It tackles rumours relating to its support of the military, its attitude towards Israel and the political stance of its chief executive.

Car manufacturer GM Europe has been besieged by online gossip about the state of its business, and has now launched a website designed to make a “distinction between the facts and rumours surrounding the company”. Visitors can also use the website to email questions or issues to the company, which GM’s PR team respond to.

Barack Obama took a similar approach with his successful website factcheck.barackobama.com/ which opened with a quote from the then candidate: ‘I want to campaign the same way I govern, which is to respond directly and forcefully with the truth.’

Last year, McDonald’s mounted an ad campaign to promote www.makeupyourownmind.co.uk, a website it set up to answer questions about its food, business, people and practices. It has been burnt by the rumour mill before, when a myth that hamburgers contain red worms to boost protein led to substantial losses for the firm before a press conference and ad campaign was launched.

The Coca-Cola Company has addressed persistent rumours – the drink was originally green in colour, it can be used as a household cleaner, the company contributes profits to Israel – on its Coca-Cola Myths and Rumours section of its website  In the UK, Coca-Cola has gone a stage further, creating www.letsgettogether.co.uk, an online forum aimed at linking the public with the Coca-Cola panel of experts. Launched in 2008, it has already answered over 1,000 questions.

“We all have to take more care to listen to our consumers,” says Sarah Tuke, head of media for Coca-Cola Great Britain. “Companies have to take advantage of this genuine two-way dialogue. This deepened dialogue enables us to answer questions, ask opinions and listen to what consumers tell us.”