Tag Archives: rumor management

Great lessons on rumor management and how to apologize

Two of my favorite bloggers, Tony Jaques in Australia and Jonathan and Erik Bernstein from California, had excellent posts and two of the most important topics: rumor management and apologies.

Tony tells the story of a hepatitis A scare in Australia that got linked to a frozen berry product.  The company out of an abundance of caution as they like to say, voluntarily recalled their product without verification their product was the cause. From there as you will see the media did their thing and the company apparently did not do enough to correct the misreporting.

The lesson is clear: a lie (or error) repeated often enough becomes the truth. The only way I know to deal with this is to loudly, clearly over and over and over tell the truth and correct the misinformation.

On the topic of apologies, the Bernstein’s rightly congratulate Anthem on their excellent apology following the hacking of 80 million members’ data. The Bernstein’s analysis is spot on as usual, but what struck me is what the company was offering to help assure peace of mind. Plus the fact that the CEO empathized clearly noting that his personal information was part of the hack.

It’s not enough to simply say you’re sorry. You have to say what you are doing to prevent it from happening and most of all communicate that you truly understand how those impacted feel. Not an easy job but well done by Anthem.


Crisis strategy–how to avoid fanning the flames

By far the majority of reputation crises I’ve been involved in have a very, very important question at the core: how do we avoid fanning the flames? There is a very real danger in communicating about an event of actually doing harm rather than improving the situation. The greatest danger, of course, is bringing a bad story to the attention of others who otherwise would not even be aware of it.

The understandable fear of this I believe is the main cause for the other problem which is “too little, too late.” When actions taken, or messages communicated about a big problem, are seen as coming slowly only as a result of outrage or pressure, then reputation damage can be severe.

This is a dilemma, a clear example of being between a rock and a hard place. And almost everyone wants to know how to make a sure-fire strategy decision that doesn’t cause harm in either direction.

A couple of recent reputation crises I’ve been involved in have brought this issue again to my attention. I find myself repeating advice to clients in very similar ways and wanted to share my thoughts about dealing with this dilemma.

The most important thing is to listen. (Amazing how often listening is the solution to communication problems!)

For example, suppose you have a senior executive whose ex-wife is accusing him of domestic violence. You knew the split was ugly and you really have no idea if there is any truth to the accusations. The executive is crucial to the company’s operations and has a high profile so news stories and social media chatter could be very harmful. So far it has been quiet, no media coverage, just behind the scenes legal activity and investigations.

What do you do? This is a classic “smoldering” crisis. There’s smoke but no fire yet. Hopefully it will all go quietly away, but there is a reasonable chance that it could suddenly flare into flames that would threaten the organization.

Here’s what I would tell you if you were the CEO:

1) Prepare–don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t wait to be caught by the interviews and social media wildfire then have a deer in headlights look. Get ready. Take whatever internal actions that those who value you expect of you. Perhaps it is to put the executive on paid leave pending an internal investigation. Be proactive keeping in mind what is fair and right and how others will evaluate your character through your actions.

2) Prepare holding statements. Think through how this could play out–from minor public play to major coverage and new, devastating revelations about your key executive. Think how it could get worse and what you would need to do and say.

3) Identify who to talk to. The most important people in any crisis are those whose opinion about your organization will determine your future. Major customers, investors, donors, business contacts, employees and families, and so on. Know who they are and determine in advance both what you will say and your methods of communicating with them.

4) Rumor management. You know there are a number of people who know about what is going on and who are talking about it. Just because they are not privy to the facts does not keep them from commenting, even on social media which has the potential to reach the media and spread virally. So monitor, monitor, monitor. Not just monitor social media, but establish “listening posts.” These are people you trust who are connected into the networks that really matter–employee networks, customer networks, industry networks, etc. Tell them to call you immediately if they hear anything–good, bad or indifferent. You want to know what the chatter is, who is saying what, and most of all, if a rumor getting legs.

5) Establish communication triggers. Decide in advance at what point you will launch a more proactive communication strategy. Perhaps it would be personal calls to the most important stakeholders. Perhaps an email to your identified top 200. Perhaps it is a low-key post on your website. But, for a worst case wildfire, you have to be ready on a 24/7 basis to push the red button and start communicating with anyone and everyone who may care.

Judgment is clearly called for here. In this kind of situation an experienced, wise and skillful crisis communication expert is probably worth whatever exorbitant fees they may charge because much is at stake. But, the key is quite simple and it goes back to “The Art of War.” Intelligence, knowing the situation, is everything. In this case, knowing what those most important to your future are hearing, thinking and responding is the most important intelligence you can have in making the right call. And it really is easier than you might think.

How to start nasty rumors

Don’t have time for too much comment on this intriguing story as I’m sitting in the Albuquerque airport waiting for next flight. But this one was just too good to pass up:


Suffice it to say, the perpetrators cleverly created and placed a quite believable rumor about Apple’s scheme to lock out anyone tampering with their products, and the rest is rumor management history. I haven’t looked to see if Apple has done anything to quell the rumor. But the authors, similar to Ryan Holiday of “Trust Me, I’m Lying” are trying to make a point. Their little infographic on believability increasing as distance from the source increases is interesting, but I also think frequently wrong.

As I just discussed with this group in Albuquerque, there is collective intelligence on the Internet but it is not always at play as this exercise demonstrates. But usually there are enough with access to correct information to fairly quickly and decisively correct those who are wrong. What this demonstrates to me more than anything is the importance of monitoring and rumor management at the company level. Because, unlike most rumors, in this case it is only those higher up in Apple who would have the information to contradict this story about the asymetric screw. How would anyone else know what Apple was doing? So, it gains credibility because no one with real info is responding.

That makes you think a bit doesn’t it. What are others saying about you that isn’t true but only you can correct?


New study on Twitter and Bin Laden death shows how news is done today

The death of Osama bin Laden is considered the biggest story told on Twitter. Now a new study by Georgia Tech and reported in Homeland Security Newswire provides insight into how news is done today, particularly the interplay of Twitter and mainstream media, in informing the world.

The study confirms the understanding the story broke on Twitter with tweets from Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t know why the study did not include the tweets from the next door neighbor of bin Laden in Abottabad who complained about the helicopters overhead and saying he was going to get out his giant fly swatter. Even though these were undoubtedly the first tweets about the incident, they did not inform of his death.

The interesting thing about this study applies to rumor management–the task that is now the number one priority of crisis communications. The team analyzed 400,000 tweets (using software, of course) and categorized them as “certain” or “uncertain.” That was a way of determining how confident the tweeter was of passing on info that considered to be true. They found that almost immediately 50% of the tweets were certain, meaning the tweeters had high confidence in the accuracy. This was well before there was any TV reports confirming the news.

Why? How could people be so certain of something so important and so subject to rumor? The researcher concluded this:

“We believe Twitter was so quick to trust the rumors because of who sent the first few tweets,” said Hu. “They came from reputable sources. It’s unlikely that a CBS News producer or New York Times reporter would spread rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation. Twitter saw their credentials and quickly believed the news was true.”

So, it comes down to the credibility of the tweeter. Aristotle is still on target (he said of the three proofs in rhetoric, logic, emotion and credibility, the most important was credibility (ethos)).

It’s hard for me to believe, but it is clear that many in crisis communications continue to discount the role of Twitter in this field and in the news world overall. Technology is changing far faster than our minds can adapt to the changes. But this study makes it clear how important Twitter, and for that matter, other social media are in informing the world of important events. Yes, as in my previous post, new ways must be found to verify facts. But despite the technology and sea change, some important things never change and being completely believable is one of those.


Fact Check–an idea whose time has come

Let me put it right out there–I think a “Fact Check” section should be on just about every major organization’s news website. And a prominent feature of almost any crisis or incident specific website.


1) The media often get it wrong and their corrections (on the rare occasions when they are willing to do them) or often insipid and hidden.

2) Rumor management is job one for official communicators.

(Explanation–when news reports are increasingly generated on social media, the “official news sources–you” simply can’t be fast enough in most cases to provide the initial reports. That leaves you the job of knowing what is being said and making certain it is correct–rumor management)

3) The social media to mainstream media interconnectedness means that rumors, even wild ones, can be spread and grow with incredible speed.

(By the time you get around to the process of contacting the reporter, moving it up the chain, them reviewing and making a decision about retraction, the story has long gone and something more immediately has replaced it.)

4) Because you are the broadcaster.

(Today, more and more news is going directly from the source to the public and stakeholders–mainstream media is losing its position as the sole or primary “mediator” of information.)

If you want to see how this works, I suggest you look look at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (full disclosure–they are a client and I was involved in setting up their Fact Check process). A local ABC affiliate ran a story that was incorrect. It involves the very sensitive topic of water rates. The public affairs staff at DWP led by Joe Ramallo quickly noted the incorrect report on the Fact Check section of their news website. I’m certain they also contacted the station. A correction was soon in coming and DWP profusely thanked the station for the correction.

My questions:

1) Would KABC been as fast and as forthcoming as they were if DWP was not very publicly communicating their clear error of fact?

2) Next time, will the reporters and editors treat stories from secondary sources with a little more caution–in fact, any stories about DWP with a little more caution?

Public affairs is all about credibility. Fact Check only works if the correction is absolutely, 100% correct and without animus or attitude. It’s about what is true and who can be trusted. And that is why it is so effective, because believe it or not, even mainstream media know that credibility is important.

McDonald’s hoax photos shows self-correction on Internet

If you spend much time on social media you probably saw this picture emerge over the weekend.




Of course it was a hoax. I was asked by Ragan Communications whether or not McDonald’s tweet in response to this was enough to quell the rumor, now swirling rapidly around the Internet. How this was handled shows the self-correcting nature of the Internet and also provides some interesting clues to the value system of the Internet crowd.

The most interesting thing to me about this situation is that the single tweet from McDonald’s was probably enough. According to this gawker report, McDonald’s provided the single tweet, direct tweeted to a couple of individuals and has restated the picture is hoax this morning.

This from the gawker report is instructive:
As I type, the pic’s still being forwarded—though the number of people mistaking the pic as real appears to be dwindling: “Seriously McDonalds” and its innovatively hashtagged version have dropped off the Twitter Trends list, and more and more people are tweeting in relief that the pic is just a hoax. Clued-in folks have helped to clear up any lingering doubts about the pic’s veracity by pointing out that the toll-free number listed on the bottom of the sign actually belongs to KFC. (Maybe McDonald’s should reward these volunteer damage controllers with some coupons for the crisis mitigation help—though whether that would be a valuable offer or not depends on one’s opinions of McDonald’s food, I guess.)

The lessons:

– hoaxes don’t die easily on the Internet, they tend to resurface again and again, and always seem to find fresh believers. This one has been around before as most of the others that I’ve checked on snopes.com.

– While people say you can’t believe what you read on the Internet and social media enables rumors to grow exponentially very quickly, the truth is that the many users of the Internet have a self-corrective nature. What is sometimes called “collective intelligence.” If something goes out and someone else knows it to be wrong, it doesn’t take long for the truth to be sorted out–usually. That’s why it wasn’t necessary for McDonald’s to do a lot more than that single tweet.

– The Internet crowd doesn’t like to be fooled. Someone I know incorrectly announced something on a social networking site that was proved to be wrong. The anger of the participants was amazing, even though clearly it was a simple mistake rather than a vicious attempt at hurting someone. It’s interesting that the gawker article headline is that the hoax angers the Internet (hmm, now the Internet is a person with emotions?) and McDonalds.

– the credibility of a hoax like this and whether it gets legs that represent a serious challenge for a brand has to do with the general attitude toward that brand of the “Internet” (if I can use gawker’s shortened version of the social media sub-culture). In other words, if Big Oil had a hoax like this perpetrated on them, I doubt that it would have been so self-correcting or even that it would have angered the Internet. That probably is the deeper lesson here. In other words, if “the Internet” wants to believe something bad about you, then a hoax like this will not die as quickly as it is with McDonalds. It’s a deeper brand problem than being victimized by a hoax.

Rumor Management–Fake News is a tricky reality

Add this to the topic of rumor management–dealing with fake news, that is rumors that swirl around possible breaking news. Here’s an article that gives a compelling recent example. It’s now pretty much common understanding that the media, desperate for declining audiences on which their revenue is based, relies on immediacy to attract eyes on the screens (TV or internet). That’s why Cable and local TV channels now have an almost continuous heading of “Breaking News” overlaying their talking heads because they want to convince you it is happening right now, if you blink you will miss something critical and most important you won’t find something more immediate anyplace else. After all, what is more immediate than right now? That’s what I’ve been wondering for a while. How will they improve on right now? Well, the future. Seems pretty obvious now. The aforementioned article may just presage the style of news to come. “We’re working on a story right now that will blow your socks off, we can’t tell you what it is about, but here’s a little hint (salacious detail inserted here) and we can’t even confirm that we are doing a story, but…”

The concern for reputation managers and crisis managers is obvious. I’ve been saying for a while now that the job of crisis management has been changing from being the first source of the information (virtually impossible in all but invisible crises because citizen journalists and those with some info or opinion will almost always beat you with the story) to rumor management. Because when they beat you with the story and the info that you have and want to share, you have to make sure what they are saying is true and accurate. Rumor management means absolutely being on top of what is being said on the internet and responding very quickly and often very aggressively.

Perhaps now is a good time to once again bring up the issue of trust. This article further comments on the Edelman Trust Barometer which I’ve commented on here before but highlights some of the reasons why trust is such an issue. Here’s a quote:

The barometer also noted the credibility of TV dropped 23 points and radio news and newspapers were down 20 points between 2008 and 2010.

One needs only to look at cable news to see why — breaking news on CNN has a tendency to be gossip repeated on Twitter. The rumor mill has taken over journalism. Part of the reason for the increase in popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert has been their willingness to say, “Can you believe the shit the mainstream media is shoveling?”

Searching and Monitoring–more important and more powerful than ever

For the past few months whenever I have been presenting to groups on crisis communication or Joint Information Center operations I have said that the most important job of crisis communication today is rumor management. It most certainly is not putting out press releases, and it may not be that important to put out information releases at all–depending on the event as we will see. The reason is simply that with social media those publics out there have access to all kinds of very fast information they didn’t have before. The emergency management community is struggling with the issue, which I blogged about recently, about how do you handle things when people out there know more than you do?

I was speaking at a state conference of emergency managers about this phenomenon and one of the attendees came up to me afterwards and said it just happened to him. He was responding to a fatality car accident and by the time he got to the hospital, the parents of the victim were already there. They knew before he did.

So in major events that are visible to the public, such as Flight 1549, the public will know more faster than the responders and probably also the media. Such is the power of those little devices we carry in our pockets and the network that makes them live and work. But, one of the truisms of crisis communication is that the initial information about an event is always wrong. And with a lot of people speaking from their perspective a lot of what is communicated about any event is going to be wrong. That’s where crisis communication comes in and why rumor management is fast becoming the biggest and most important job. You have to know what is being said and you have to be able to respond and correct misinformation very quickly. If a lie becomes the truth when it is repeated often enough, just think how often a lie can be repeated when it has gone viral. You’ve got to have the ability to stop it in its tracks before those tracks turn out to be a big honking tank bearing right down on you.

But how? Monitoring has become one of the biggest jobs in the JIC or the Crisis Command Center. I’m modifying crisis plans I’m working on to beef up the staffing for the Monitoring and Rumor Management unit. A sizeable event we were just involved in demonstrated how critically important this monitoring is and how it drives the information that is required.

Fortunately there is an increasing array of excellent tools available to do the monitoring–many or most involving online searches. And many, but not all, are free. And monitoring tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated which means that we have to keep evolving with them. Brian Solis, one of the widely recognized thought leaders in social media has an interesting post today about the evolution of search.

If anyone has any experience with monitoring services or rumor management during a crisis, please let me know. This is a very important topic and wouldn’t mind having a few guest posts on it from people who have been through the mill.