Online rumor about a brand? The clock is ticking

Respond like Olive Garden, not SoulCycle.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

How much time does a brand have to stop an online rumor from spreading into a full-blown crisis? The window is closing faster and faster, say experts. 

Olive Garden is the latest brand to see first-hand how quickly an unsubstantiated claim can spread across social media. The hashtag #BoycottOliveGarden began trending on Twitter due to unsubstantiated chatter that the company is funding President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The brand tried to quell the rumors by responding to dozens of users sharing the hashtag with, "We don’t know where this information came from, but it is incorrect. Our company does not donate to presidential candidates."

In some replies, Olive Garden also clarified that its parent company, Darden Restaurants, does not donate to federal candidates.

The rumor reportedly took off after a seemingly respectable source, a college professor, said in a tweet on Sunday that the Italian restaurant chain is bankrolling Trump’s re-election bid. Her message added, sarcastically, "It would be terrible if you shared this and Olive Garden lost business." Within 48 hours, her since-deleted message was retweeted more than 250,000 times including by model and foodie Chrissy Teigen, who has 11.5 million followers. 

Speed is of the essence when a company needs to respond, says Andrew Moesel, SVP of issues management and corporate reputation at Ketchum. 

"Often times a company doesn’t address a piece of inaccurate, negative information until it is already being shared on popular social channels and by popular social media personalities. That is because they haven’t seen it until then. By that time, it is almost too late to respond effectively," he says. "Where a lot of negative rumors originate from is on platforms like Reddit and even the dark web. That is why having an awareness of the discussion out there before anything gains traction is half the battle."

Moesel also recommends that a brand develop relationships with online allies, including those with credibility on their platforms of choice from Twitter and Facebook to Reddit. 

"One, enlisting allies to go into the world and self-police information about you will usually be seen as more credible by audiences. And two, it is a more effective way to reach the corners of the internet where the company might otherwise be blind," he adds. 

Experts by and large are applauding Olive Garden for its quick response, noting the brand focused its communications on Twitter replies to specific individuals, a strategy to stop people from forwarding the boycott message or to delete their original message. It did not tweet a mass "set the record straight" message to all of its followers, which likely would have made more people aware of the allegations. 

Jeremy Story, VP at GroundFloor Media, agrees that communications pros need to be aware of all of the social media discussions about their brand, no matter how crazy they might sound. He adds that chaos theory, the idea of describing outcomes that are next to impossible to anticipate despite predictive modeling tools, very much applies to online gossip. 

"You can have two equally ridiculous rumors surface, and only one will turn into something huge. There is really no way to predict what rumor is going to catch fire about you and which won’t," he says. "That it is why you need to go deep and pay attention to what is being said about you. Reddit is a great place to diagnose what is out there."  

Step one: Setting benchmarks
Communicators need to know when an online rumor reaches the point of crisis, which is why experts advise brands to establish thresholds that dictate when a response to a fallacy is warranted. It could be based on variables like traffic, the profile of social media users sharing negative information, tone or how quickly the disinformation is being shared.

"By having threshold protocols in place, you take the emotion out of a pressure-cooker moment, and that is important," says Scott Farrell, president of global corporate communications at Golin. "Thresholds allow brands to respond quickly, because there is no debate internally about whether you should or not, and also allow for a more rational conversation with your leadership team rather than an emotionally charged one." 

One baseline could identify when a conversation being shared within a small group of people with little credibility or influence breaks out from a mini-echo chamber to other users. It could dictate that a brand reach out to those individuals and set the record straight. Another could recommend a brand act more aggressively, using allies and their own social media channels to refute claims. 

Aside from forcing brands to make rational decisions, thresholds are important because they prevent teams from acting too slowly or too hastily to something that doesn’t warrant a response at all. 

"You have to be prepared to move at the speed of the internet, but it doesn’t mean you have to," says Farrell. "Sometimes the most important thing you need to do is sit back, take a larger view of the situation and don’t immediately come back with a knee-jerk response." 

Karen Doyne, principal at Doyne Strategies, concurs, saying, "Don’t let speed get in the way of strategy. There is a fine balance between the two." 

"Take the time you need to evaluate the situation, listen to what is being said and by who, because the first substantive response you make is something you are going to have to live with for a long time," Doyne points out. "Nobody remembers the fourth statement on an issue." 

An example of a brand rushing its response is also related to Trump fundraising, but in this case the rumors were true.  After learning that SoulCycle owner Stephen Ross was holding a fundraiser for Trump, critics, including celebrities such as Billy Eichner and (again) Teigen, tweeted that they were canceling their memberships. SoulCycle issued a statement that characterized Ross as a "passive investor." The statement was skewered by media outlets including Vanity Fair

"I think they made the situation worse for themselves with a statement that many people saw as trying to obfuscate, trivialize or downplay Stephen Ross’ role in the company," she says. "You need to talk straight. That first response can really make a difference in whether a social media situation becomes a crisis or not." 

Online boycott? Meh
Online criticism of a brand often comes with calls for a boycott. Yet experts say that while they can inflict reputational damage, they generally don’t have a negative effect on financial performance. Even in the case of Olive Garden, some social media users said they would prioritize  bottomless breadsticks and salad over political leanings. 

"Research definitively shows that boycotts have a minimal impact on the cash register, especially over an extended period of time," says Brian Baker, founder and principal at Big Sky Crisis Communications. "Not every negative online discussion a brand sees about itself is a crisis-level threat. Boycotts online should usually be addressed more as an issue management rather than a full-blown crisis." 

It could even be an opportunity for brands to have a conversation with disgruntled customers. 

"You definitely want to engage with some of those audiences if you can, but not to create more conflict," says Baker. "See it as an opportunity to be more collaborative and to better understand their concerns as well as an opportunity to address those concerns."

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