Rumors and How to Combat Them

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I found myself quoting Mark Twain: “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Not that rumors were floating about regarding my demise, I hasten to add. But a rumor regarding me had surfaced–and it was about as accurate as the rumors Twain encountered.

I’ll tell you in a minute what the tidbit of gossip about me was. But the event caused me to ponder: How does one counter a rumor and keep it from spreading? I came up with a few answers and borrowed some advice after googling about options for how to respond.

The Rumor with My Name on It

The rumor with my name on it was stated succinctly: I was going to retire and shut down the agency.

One of my clients and I had scheduled a check-in phone call, and she started our conversation saying that she had heard the rumor and was just checking that, surely it was false, right?

Unfortunately I don’t have Twain’s wit, or I would have invented some quote-worthy snappy reply, but I was flabbergasted. First, retiring is a distant, nebulous idea to me. I might not even bother with it but keep working as long as my mind doesn’t betray me. Given that my mother is  93 and just beginning to show a wee bit of fuzzy thinking, my genes are in favor of such a plan. My calendar doesn’t even have a retirement year on it, let alone a day.

Second, I would never just close down the agency. I’ve worked for 22 years to build this business, and I would not walk away one day and throw away the key. Not to mention that I take very seriously that we have more than 250 clients, all of whom would be affected by such a decision. And four other agents who are deeply invested in Books & Such, in each other, and in making a living.

For all those reasons, my mind could hardly take in that such a patent lie would be floating around in the atmosphere. But what to do about it?

Locate the Source

After the initial shock wore off, I asked my client to tell me whom she had heard the rumor from. I wanted to talk to the person and set the record straight. She didn’t offer a name but did say the person is an unpublished writer. And my client assured me that she would “take care of” nipping the falsehood in the bud.

I, of course, don’t know whether the writer invented the rumor. So I asked a well-connected industry friend if she had heard the tall tale. She assured me she hadn’t. And I informed everyone in our office about the rumor so they could keep their ears to the ground. And now I’m telling you.

Sometimes the source is hard to locate, but I wanted to at least determine how far flung the rumor was. It seems, in my case, not too far.

Why Fuss over Rumors?

Why didn’t I just laugh off the rumor? Wasn’t I actually helping to spread it by telling others?

I pondered those questions and chose to guide my decision by how presidential candidates responded to rumors. Not that I put myself on that level, of course. Rumors are rife during campaigns and receive wide media coverage for people wanting to be president, as we so well know. But I saw what happened to those who didn’t handle rumors well, and those who did a good job.

My first thought was of John Kerry, who reacted feebly to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aggressive barrage of rumors designed to assail Kerry’s Vietnam War heroic reputation. Kerry’s campaign suffered serious–probably fatal–setbacks because of his having difficulty engaging in responding to allegations that seemed outrageous to him.

In contrast, Bill Clinton set up a rumor war room. Those who worked in the room squelched rumors within 45 minutes of hearing them. The group was so effective the film “The War Room” was created to showcase all the drama inherent in such a rapid-fire response.

And then we have Governor Michael Dukakis’s response to an ad about his being soft on crime because he released a convicted felon, Willie Horton, for a weekend furlough. Horton escaped during the furlough and raped a woman. Dukakis took days to answer the accusation of his weak stance on crime. His candidacy died a certain death due in part to his slow response.

Noting the candidates’ responses and how their decisions affected their campaigns informed my decision not to shrug off the silly rumor.

Offer a Clear, Fact-Based Response

Provide an explanation of why the rumor is false. Just give the facts. The reasons my retirement rumor were false are listed in paragraphs three and four under the subhead, “The Rumor with My Name on It.”

My actions also speak to the truth of the matter. Last year I traveled for business an average of every other week; this year I’m on the road about once a month. I have added three clients to my roster so far this year and am in conversation with several more. I’m attending three writers conferences in 2018 and am on the faculty of two of them. I will visit a minimum of four publishing houses, each in a different state, this year. And our agency is more than halfway to the sales goals it has set for itself for 2018.

These are not the actions of someone shutting down her business or yearning to spend her days swinging in a hammock.

Three Different Approaches

Lately I’ve noted three television ads from businesses trying to repair their damaged reputations, which are instructive to watch. Wells Fargo’s ad reminds us that the bank has a storied history of being trustworthy. “And then we we lost it [our way],” the narrator says and goes  on to explain that they are returning to their roots and no longer providing incentives to employees for encouraging customers to sign up for certain services.

Uber’s ad lists a number of specifics about what they’re doing differently to change the toxic culture they’ve created for those who work for them as well as for those who use their services.

Facebook’s ad attempts to assure us that the friendly connectedness we first encountered there turned nefarious and FB was victimized by bad actors, just as we were. FB promises it will do better at keeping us safe and private; not is doing better but will.

These three approaches fascinate me. Whenever I see the Wells Fargo ad, I cynically tell my television, “Yeah, right.” Then I mentally count all the other ways the bank has shown itself untrustworthy. When I watch the Uber ad, I think, “They are doing good things to turn the company around.” And when I watch the Facebook ad, I think, “Until you change how you make money, you intend to keep using me.”

Stating a number of specific changes a company is making presents that firm as more credible. I think the same is true for how a person or a company refutes a rumor–be specific and be honest. Showcase the evidence.

Provide an Explanation as to What You Are Refuting

A few days ago I read an organizations’ online article that left me puzzled and filled with speculation. Apparently they’ve recently laid off many employees who have worked there for a long time. A disgruntled employee has been communicating to others in the industry how the new leadership is off the rails and…I don’t really know what else because the article wasn’t specific.

The essay offers reasons it fired the employees: They weren’t willing to be dragged into the 21st century; one of them stole from the company; they lacked adequate skills but had an inflated sense of their worth. My description of the article’s content is written with the same tone of the essay. Pretty hard-hitting and deprecatory. The situation was described as “cleaning up the mess.” Lots of innuendoes were included, but beyond the theft and an errant letter, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

I had no idea any of this was happening, and I felt like I had just been given a peek into an internecine war. I guess the article was written under the assumption that the disgruntled employee’s communique had been distributed far and wide. But, because the email didn’t offer a clear explanation of what it was refuting, all it did was stir up my curiosity and make me wonder about just how big of a mess was going on there. My assumption is that it’s a real mess. The email is a PR nightmare.

Have you ever been the subject of a rumor? How did you respond?

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