Public Relations Rumors and How to Counter Them

Two businesswomen gossiping in office hall
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Rumors aren't confined to neighborhood gossip. The largest corporations in the world regularly use rumors to their advantage, causing stock prices to rise or fall and prompting competitors to start madly developing products — or abandon them.

Public officials, political campaigns and advocacy groups traffic in rumors to hurt rivals, to kill legislation or to advance an agenda. Sports teams have made successful trades based on rumors, and actors and directors have gotten jobs and lost them again because of them. Here's how public figures and corporations at the highest level deal with the constant threat of hearsay, gossip, and rumors.

Corporate Rumors

Vaporware is a constant threat in the high-tech world. It's a product, typically software or hardware, that is announced and possibly advertised, but it's never actually manufactured or released to the public. Eventually and after a great deal of press, the release is abandoned and canceled.

Maybe you're a tiny startup company in San Francisco, writing software that lets you take your Droid or iPhone and use it to control an army of robots. The robots will mow your lawn, take out your trash and obey every command. You're about to go public with it and sell stock. A giant such as Apple could squish you like a bug simply by planting a rumor that the next iPhone will include that feature. Who wants to have to deal with software when his phone is automatically equipped? Poof —– just like that, your market is gone. Nobody will buy your stock.

Can this sort of rumor be verified as true or untrue? Not really, because the next iPhone may not come out for six months and Apple naturally protects these secrets until there's a rollout. Until then ... it's just a rumor.

Preemptive Rumors

You'll see a similar tactic occur in politics. A young politician may be planning to run for Congress, and a much more established rival — someone who has no plans to run for the same seat – might sabotage his campaign by planting a rumor that he's considering running run for the same seat. Donors may have written checks to the up-and-comer, but now they'll just have to wait to see if the political lion runs. Consultants and campaign staff will wait. It can effectively derail an otherwise productive campaign. It can lose on-the-fence voters who don't want to "waste" their votes on a candidate who presumably can't win against the political lion, no matter how much they like the up-and-comer.

To Comment or Not to Comment?

Many big corporations and public figures have a policy of never commenting on rumors. It is typically smart because rumors can get stronger when you feed them with attention. A common mistake in combating rumors is to come on too strong when denying them. The press and public may then think that "thou doest protest too much." Is it possible the rumor is true because you're reacting so vehemently?

It does suggest a defense, however. You might turn the rumors against the nasty people who use them by being seemingly random — but strategic — about when you ignore rumors and when you protest. Instead of shouting "That's not true!" respond with a brief but well-placed comment that will turn the attention of the press and public to you or your business. Make them wonder what you're up to and what's coming next. In the Apple example, this can be as simple as pointing out that your software does something that Apple's can't automatically do.

Of course, you have to be able to deliver.