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Media and Crisis Management

How to Squelch Internet Rumors

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: How to Squelch Internet Rumors Crisis response

I’d bet that you were the victim of a false rumor at least once in your life, especially when going through school. Do you remember how helpless you felt, wondering how to stop it, much less correct it? Now multiply that feeling a thousand fold and you have an idea what it’s like to be the target of a rumor on the Internet.

As of 2004 more than 275 million people were on line with estimated 1 billion by 2007. What in the world would you do about a false rumor about your company rocketing through cyberspace? How would you reverse an avalanche of damaging information in an environment of 1 million email messages a day?

Because I deal in crisis communications and want to learn to help clients cope with Internet gossip, I went to Connie Chesner’s presentation to a Public Relations Society of America luncheon. Chesner is a consultant who teaches at Wake Forest University, researches and tracks Internet rumor cases, and advises companies on Internet threats.

She says this is getting serious. In 2000 an Internet falsehood that congress was considering taxing email became so widespread that the two New York Senate candidates actually debated it. The bogus email tax measure even had a number – Bill 602P.

Chesner says that in 1999 the U.S. banana industry suffered more than $30 million in losses because of widespread fear spread by false email. The rumor said bananas imported from Costa Rica contained flesh eating bacteria.

She says anxiety increases Internet rumors. After 9/11 more than 50 circulated. Furthermore, because emails are text and can look legitimate, we often tend to believe them, and especially since friends and family frequently forward them. (Chesner found that we circulate email rumors not necessarily because we believe them, but also because there’s a chance they are correct.)

And American companies almost never do a good job of squelching these rumors. Connie Chesner’s research found that 75% of corporate websites bury rumor responses on their homepages more than one click away. The average number of clicks to reach the response is three. The burden is on the public to ferret out facts.

A few companies do well. Chesner said Honda responded nicely to rumors of a car giveaway that were so numerous that they deluged the company and even briefly shutdown the corporate website. Honda’s president quickly put a letter on the website homepage apologizing for public inconvenience, explaining, telling what was happening, why the rumor was false, and providing links to independent parties who verified the falsehood. The company halted the fabrication within 2 months.

So, what do you do if you become the unfortunate victim of Internet rumormongers? Chesner has more than 50 recommendations including the following. Notice how much they parallel good crisis management principles I often write about. I will add a few comments in parentheses.

  1. Speed is essential so respond immediately, within 2-3 days at most. (If you are getting major media coverage, go faster – and respond within a single news cycle if you can. Don’t let a false negative get a foothold while you fine-tune a reaction.)
  2. Make your response accessible. Don’t bury it on your website, much less leave it out.
  3. Make it easy for the audience to understand your response.
  4. Provide clear evidence of the rumor’s falsehood. For example, show gaps in logic, and provide scientific support.
  5. Use objective 3rd parties to provide outside confirmation. (That is much more reassuring than investigating yourself or merely insisting that you are right.)
  6. Provide contact information so people know where or whom to call. Form letters and blunt comments from remote corporate offices don’t work.
  7. Structure your response so that others can easily pass it along by email. (Great idea!)

I suggest you add Internet rumor response to your crisis communications plan so that you can act fast when the chips are down. After all, it’s only your reputation at stake.

Thank you, Connie. You can reach her at

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