Making rumors work to your client's advantage

David Johnson worried that his e-mail software client was in trouble when rumors started cropping up online.

David Johnson worried that his e-mail software client was in trouble when rumors started cropping up online.

Criticism is one thing, says Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based PR firm Strategic Vision. But in this instance, people were posting online messages warning not to use his client's product "or their entire system would shut down."

That's quite an admonition. So Johnson took the offensive to combat the potential brand-damaging misinformation.

"We treated it as a joke," he recalls. His firm addressed the comments in a lighthearted way, he says, by saying the client was in fact sharing its technology with aliens.

As a result, the rumor began to die. (That is, Johnson says, until some UFO-obsessed bloggers picked it up. The firm then had some specific, but not brand-threatening, explaining to do.)

"Depending on the severity of the rumor, [you can] make fun of it or confront it," Johnson says. "The worst you can do is ignore it."

According to urban legend-tracking Web site Snopes.com, some of the more widely circulated online rumors of late include Domino's Pizza suspending its "30 Minutes Or It's Free" delivery policy after a driver ran over a child, Ericsson giving out complimentary laptops to people who forward an e-mail to friends, and Starbucks refusing to send its coffee to troops fighting in Iraq.

Agency execs say it is important to manage this kind of misinformation, even if it seems insignificant. Most every e-mail user has received at least one hysterical, unconfirmed warning; regardless of its accuracy, news travels fast in the Internet age: in online forums, peer-to-peer media, and on blogs.

"Our number-one goal is to manage and protect a client's brand," said Tracey Fitzgerald, VP of Text 100 Public Relations in Seattle. "When a situation comes up, [you must] move forward quickly. How you react out of the gate will be critical. It will set the tone for communications moving forward."

Fitzgerald says the best action is to convene a meeting of the client's key executives, assess the damage, determine the audiences to be addressed, and create long- and short-term plans.

Mark Simmons, co-author of Punk Marketing, says crazy rumors and accusations can also offer clients opportunities.

"You have a chance, when people say things about you, to give an impression of yourself," he says. "You can put on that human face and do it through humor or be very honest about yourself," he says, citing Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) recent admission to being addicted to cigarettes. "That is true with brands as well. The way you respond to it makes you seem human. Brands are often two-dimensional. This gives them a chance to be three-dimensional."

Chris Gidez, SVP in Hill & Knowlton's New York corporate practice, maintains that in dealing with misinformation, action is not always needed.

"There are rumors, and then there are rumors," he says. There are outrageous stories - such as tales of product logos looking like swastikas - and there are serious rumors of corporate takeovers.

"Look at the nature of the rumor," Gidez adds. "Who is disseminating it? Is it a legitimate outlet? Keep your antenna up and don't act viscerally."

Key points:

When faced with rumors that could potentially damage clients, firms should assess possible harm early

Its response to rumors can actually help strengthen a firm's client's brand

If responding to rumors, strategies should include short- and long-term plans

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