Managing the Rumor Mill

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Robert L. Dilenschneider

In essence, “rumor” is speculation about what was, is, or could be. It may be accurate or a base canard. The speculation could be well substantiated, as when investigative journalists have informed sources for an emerging story. It could be created and passed on without any substance. That’s frequently the sometimes creative mischief of youth or those with agendas. There is the spec­ulation that has some relation to reality, but the question is how much. The research of psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo found that many work-­related rumors turn out to be true.

Rumors exist for a wide variety of reasons. They go back to bib­lical times. Mankind needs them. The only thing new is that today we have digital communications to help disseminate rumors more quickly and globally.

Rumor Rears Its Head

Each rumor is an entity unto itself. There are many scenarios for how a rumor came to be, and why, and the most efficient and effec­tive way to cope with it. For example:

The rumor may be a plus for the organization. It might be speculation in chat rooms and bulletin boards that the company will sponsor a contest seeking user­created content for its Super Bowl commercial. Given that the idea is already out there, the company might decide to release an announcement addressing the matter earlier than planned; or perhaps the company leaked the information to catalyze interest and enhance its reputation. In this case, leverage the attention.

The speculation may not be worth paying attention to, and might simply vanish if ignored. An example may be the rumor that a popular brand of cereal might be preparing to make a major change in its ingredients. Addressing the rumor can give it a life of its own.

Rumors that can potentially damage an organization have to be addressed. Therefore, as part of the overall crisis plan, there should also be a plan in place for how to respond to such rumors. In this scenario:

—The response plan should specify who the spokesperson will be, what the approval procedures are for relevant functions such as legal and manufacturing, and how and when information should be released. The distribution systems for the initial response and the ongoing follow-­up should also be decided beforehand, including key media to notify and posting on the organization’s Website.

—The response plan must include the message to be communicated. For instance, if the rumor relates to contamination during food processing, the message might be that since 1987, systems have been in place, and they are constantly inspected and continually updated to prevent contamination.

—Control over the message and therefore over the situation comes from gathering and releasing the facts as quickly and completely as they become available. When they are not available, spokespeople can indicate they will report the facts as soon as possible. Rumors can catch organizations by surprise. Suppose there is speculation that the CEO is about to be fired. A response is expected to be rapid, especially when material information is involved. Security analysts and shareholders need to know the facts.

—In preparing a response, there will always be the push and pull between the lawyers and the spokespeople. Usually, a compromise can be worked out. The lawyers can protect the organization while the public statements communicated express a human sensibility. Gone are the days when legal concerns were excuses for stonewalling or saying “No comment.” If the organization is wrong, the lawyers and the communications folks can create a mea culpa that puts the best possible face on the situation in order to prevent litigation yet satisfy the constituencies. Organizational rhetoric is expected to be conversational.

—Symbolism is powerful, particularly when it involves action. Consider a rumor that senior executives are receiving big bonuses as a firm is laying off 23% of its workforce. The response cannot be just a denial of the rumor; it should include the announcement, for example, that the top 100 executives are taking a 10% reduction in pay.

—Third­-party support can provide unique credibility. Often, it’s what others say about an organization that can carry more weight than what an organization says about itself. Take the rumor that the company discriminates on the basis of gender. Professional organizations whose mission is women’s equality in the workplace can go on record supporting the company’s record in hiring, developing, compensating, and promoting females.

—If it becomes necessary to turn over the investigation of facts to an independent agency, make sure that outside organization has a credible reputation.

—If necessary, switch the channel. This is an era of short attention spans. What is of interest this afternoon might not be on the digital radar screen come the evening. This process can be ensured by introducing a new subject. For instance, information about a possible new product line is rumored. Counter with an announcement about restructuring the design department.

Emerging More than Whole

The art of managing rumors can result in emerging from the ordeal more than whole. A classic case is the manner in which Hillary Clinton gained sympathy and support during a time of constant speculation about the state of her marriage. She remained calm. In public, she played the role of the dedicated spouse and her husband did the same. Dignity was the name of the game.

To increase the odds that a rumor can be turned into an oppor­tunity, some guidelines are helpful:

—Never react. That provides fuel for the opposition.

—Craft one responsive message and keep reinforcing it. Being a “broken record” discourages the agitators.

—Express compassion for the attackers. That defuses their power. After all, they must be needy souls to have to engage in this mischief.

—Have everyone in the loop stick together.

— Share with constituencies how much one is learning from the situation. It’s all about lessons learned.

—Organizations must have a plan in place for monitoring and dealing with rumors. It could be part of the overall crisis plan. It must include a message that favorably positions the target of the particular rumor. Managed artfully, rumors can enhance one’s positioning.

© 2010 Robert L. Dilenschneider. Excerpted and adapted by permission of the publisher from The AMA Handbook of Public Relations, by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Robert L. Dilenschneider is the founder and chairman of The Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations and communications consulting firm.  He is the former president and chief executive officer of Hill and Knowlton, Inc., and the author of many books, including the best-selling Power and Influence.