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Media and Crisis Management

Internet Rumors and dealing with them

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Internet Rumors and dealing with themCrisis Preparedness from the archives

Before NBA star Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault accuser dropped her case, there was a nightmarish sidelight that reminded the business community of the potential threat of Internet rumors, and the challenge of being prepared to offset them as well as any attack on our reputation.

An acquaintance of Bryant’s accuser, not even a friend of hers, was misidentified across the Internet as the actual “victim.” 18-year old Katie Lovell of Eagle, Colorado – where the alleged attack occurred – saw her picture and much more ricochet through computers. Although she was an innocent, USA TODAY reported that her photograph was being “displayed with the words WHORE ALERT, and every inch of Lovell’s body was being discussed in graphic detail in numerous chat rooms. Men on computers across the globe were making nasty, degrading and demoralizing comments.” The only link between her and the real accuser was that they went to the same school, participated in school activities together, and resembled each other.

Ms. Lovell gave many media interviews to offset the falsity, but the wildfire in the virtual world ran uncontrolled for awhile and some of the incorrect reports remain out there – for who knows how long?

In 2002 Wake Forest University instructor Connie Chesner gave a speech to the local Public Relations Society of America chapter about coping with Internet rumors. (She is also a consultant who researches and tracks Internet rumor cases and advises companies about them.) Ms. Chesner posed a question that applies today to Katie Lovell and the rest of us. How do you reverse an avalanche of damaging information in an environment of one million email messages a day?

To illustrate the scope of the problem, Ms. Chesner recalled an Internet falsehood in 2000 that Congress was considering taxing email. The rumor gained so much traction that two New York Senate candidates actually debated the issue. The bogus email tax measure even had a number – “Bill 602P.” Yet, it didn’t exist. It was a lie.

She told of the 1999 case that cost the U.S. banana industry more than $30 million. The rampant rumor was that bananas imported from Costa Rica contained flesh eating bacteria. Wrong!

Ms. Chesner’s research found that American companies rarely do a good job of squelching rumors, and even when they do most of them bury their responses more than one click away from their website homepages. The average number of clicks to reach the reply was three. The public had to dig to get to the facts.

Ms. Chesner’s model for a good Internet rumor counterattack is this. React extremely fast on the Internet itself, make your response easy to understand, and use an independent 3rd party to corroborate your position.

She gave a Honda case as an example of doing it right. The automaker was overrun by spurious reports that the company would give away cars. The company briefly shut down its corporate website. The president then posted a letter on the Honda homepage: 1) apologizing for public inconvenience, 2) explaining what was happening and why the rumor was false and 3) providing links to independent parties verifying the falsehood. Honda halted the fabrication within 2 months.

Sounds like a plan. The key is to be prepared to execute such a strategy on short notice, which, to my mind, raises a larger question. Are companies prepared to react to any threat to their reputation and not just from the Internet? Probably not. A survey showed that 90% of executives expect a crisis and fewer than 50% prepare for one. Many are so focused on the bottom line in this economy that they forget how fast a decades-old reputation can come undone. With cash flow all-consuming they do not remember that a local TV news satellite truck can be outside their gate within an hour and disparage a good name in minutes. Non-journalists can attack with a mere keyboard via the Internet with even further-reaching consequences.

So I think the answer to the Internet rumor threat is the same answer to all threats. Organize a trained team of your best thinkers who know the latest strategies and tactics of crisis management, and can prosecute solutions fast – in minutes, not hours. They and top management must relentlessly ask, “What if?” And they must consistently plan how to react.

So, in your heart of hearts how would you answer the question, “Are we prepared for an attack on our reputation?”

If the answer is no, then you could likely have the dubious distinction of proving the wisdom of Gen. Douglas McArthur who said long ago that he could sum up in just two words why all military battles are lost.

“Too late!”

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