Rumors pose a particularly troublesome challenge for public relations people. In most crises, either the pertinent facts are not in dispute—either the plane fell out of the sky or it didn’t—or the individual making the charges can be engaged in debate. But rumors are, by their nature nebulous.
Consider the case of Procter & Gamble, beset for more than three decades now by the rumor that some percentage of its profit is used to promote Satanism. The fact that the rumor is patently absurd—in this era of shareholder activism, surely one of the institutions with significant holdings in P&G would have noticed—has apparently not mitigated it effect on the company. Its public relations department receives thousands of calls each year from outraged housewives and has to explain the situation to these people just as patiently as it would if they were not gullible cretins.
Proving a negative is, of course, an impossibility. It’s hard to see where P&G might start: hire the chief financial officer for the Episcopalian church, perhaps, to audit the company’s finances. In fact, P&G has made numerous efforts to track the rumor to its source, filing several lawsuits against rival Amway and its distributors for their part in spreading the rumor.
(That case took a further bizarre twist this week, with Amway accusing P&G of “supporting the spread of rumors about Amway” by paying the author of a rogue web site—Amway: The Untold Story—and providing him with information suggesting that Amway was encouraging its agents to disseminate the satanism rumor.)
Now a new study from the Institute of Public Relations confirms both the prevalence of rumors and the challenges they create for communicators.
Senior communicators responding to a survey conducted by Nicholas diFonzo of the department of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology and Prashant Bordia of the University of Queensland said rumors about which they were concerned reached their ears almost weekly. The majority of these rumors are internal in nature—focusing on personnel changes and job security issues—but external rumors included both corporate reputation and product quality and safety issues.
External rumors cited covered subjects such as product discontinuance, product recall, and possible mergers or acquisitions.
According to diFonzo and Bordia, “PR professionals can expect to encounter harmful rumors frequently. The bulk of rumors seem to be associated with such common organizational changes as mergers, acquisitions, changes in personnel, downsizing, layoffs and restructurings. PR professionals can certainly expect rumors in these circumstances.”
Regardless of the truth of the rumors in question, their consequences were rated “somewhat severe” on average. The most serious consequence of rumors was the loss of trust between workers and management, followed by increased employee stress and lowered morale, but external consequences—including bad pass, sullied reputation, and even declining share price—were also rated moderately severe.
 The survey also suggests that companies employ a wide range of strategies to counter rumors, with varying degrees of success. The most successful approaches include articulating the values of the organization, making it clear that formal procedures are in place to deal with the issues raised, and explaining the process by which change decisions will be made.
There was widespread agreement that refusing to comment, spreading counter rumors, and seeking out and punishing the people responsible for planting the rumor were not affective strategies. However, a number of respondents cited examples of rumors that had been ignored and had simply died out.
“PR professionals can best inhibit rumor activity and its associated effects by reducing or placing bounds on uncertainty,” say the authors. “Though it is often not possible or desirable to completely dispel uncertainty surrounding organizational change, strategies that limit uncertainty will aid greatly in the reduction of questions and doubts.”
Interestingly, some obvious public relations responses—establishing a rumor hotline, for example, or enlisting a credible third party to deny the rumor—were generally effective but were not widely used.
In conclusion, DiFonzo and Bordia say, “timely consistent , brief, regular and coherent communiques from appropriate company officials or trusted outside sources seem likely to reduce rumor activity. It seems probably to us, however, that the success of such efforts presupposes perceptions on honesty, a climate of trust, and communique content that is helpful in structuring uncertainty.”