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 She didn’t offer a name but did say the person is an unpublished writer.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?


What should you do to quell a rumor about you? Click to tweet.

Steps to take if you’re the subject of a rumor. Click to tweet.

29 Responses

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  1. Lara Hosselton says:

    Janet, So glad to hear you’re not leaving!!!! Although a long vacation with your toes in the sand would be well deserved. 😊

  2. If I have, I was either unaware or don’t remember. I have been in the presence of a false rumor being spread and that also requires action. If you know the facts to a situation and can put a stop to the rumor, you should. However, if you do not know the facts you can make a point of saying that until the tunor can be confirmed by the subject of the rumor, it shouldn’t be spread and you will not participate. Refusing to be a participant and making it known the facts have not been confirmed is critical to the situation. It is kind of like seeing a lot cigarette butt on the edge of a dry field and doing nothing about it. The rumor may not go further, or it may turn into a wild fire that consumes and destroys. Act quickly or things may grow out of hand.

    I think you did the right thing. And with RT Reviews closing, it may have just been someone getting the information mixed up. At least that is my hope.

    Have a great, rumor-free week.

  3. Janet, I had heard that rumour about you, and immediately dismissed it. It seemed outlandish, both in regard to your character and in regard to how businesses work.
    * I was the subject of a rumour when I was eighteen; I was reputed to be dead. It wasn’t too far from the truth, as I had recently flown a small aeroplane through a set of 250,000 volt main transmission lines, thus depriving several communities of power on a hot day in summer. The only casualties, however, were my moustache and eyebrows, burned off when the arc of the parting wires broke the windshield (the shards cut my throat) and flash-burned me. Well, and the aeroplane was a bit of a mess as well.
    * Being dead had certain advantages, as for a time I could easily duck invitations I would have otherwise had to coldly decline (a friend acted as a ‘publicist’, answering my phone for as long as we could run it out).
    * But alas, death was not permanent, and my playing it up ensured that my return to the world of the living was not greeted with rapturous joy.

  4. The best way to counter a rumor, in my humble opinion, is to be someone known for respectfully speaking the truth. If I’m a known liar, my protests that the rumor is false won’t be believed.
    * Beyond that, the best bet is to speak the truth, in love, and whenever possible, with humor (a la Mark Twain and our own Andrew).

  5. Lynn Horton says:

    As if business isn’t hard enough without combatting someone else’s imagination, right, Janet? I had not heard the rumor, but am blissfully ill-connected in terms of gossip. (Producing stories is time-consuming enough!) I officially retired at 45, although am busier than I’ve ever been—which is saying something. Like you, I’m going to keep living (which means working) until I die, and I’m not practicing dying a minute earlier than necessary.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lynn, yup, I didn’t have a spot reserved on my calendar for fighting rumors. Sigh.
      We can keep each other company after everyone else sets off into Retirement Land–well, you did, but you didn’t mean it. 🙂

      • Lynn Horton says:

        I am an epic failure at retirement, Janet Grant. I think I just needed to catch my breath between careers. And I’d also be a terrible bored lady.

  6. Years ago, before I met my husband, a “friend” had been sending hate mail to a large, internationally known para-church organization, threatening lawsuits and personal attacks on the national leadership. This went on for months, and would now be considered prison-worthy criminal activity. I have no idea how many letters she sent, probably 5 to 10, but she signed my name on all of them. Because I’d trusted her, and poured my heart out over some difficulties I’d encountered with one of the leaders, she knew a great many of the personal details. So, for months, my name was passed around as someone who was capable of bringing down this organization, and I was talked about in hushed tones and prayed over because of my threats. Rumors were flying like rockets and I knew nothing about it. Friends were walking out of my life and I had no idea why. I was publicly and privately shredded, and yet no one said anything to me until the president of this organization called me out during a large event at my church with only about 200 people present. Being raged at by a grown man at the age of 22 was somewhat upsetting. My pastor and a former youth leader came to my defense, and since the youth leader was an attorney, he got to the bottom of things and took on this massive mess and sorted it all out for the price of a smile and my undying thanks
    Rumors are always incendiary and can go from a week or two of diligent soaking to solve the problem, to a national Christian organization wanting one’s head on a platter and needing immediate legal action. My attorney friend was wise in not telling me the depths of the threats. But I have never encouraged any of my kids to go on a short term mission with any group without me knowing the leadership.
    Janet, I thank God that you had the wisdom to handle your situation with grace. You’re the leader of this team and God chose the best when He made you our captain.
    And one more thing, rumors are why one does not talk shop with people that one does not know well. That is why when there is an issue within the family, it stays within the family. I cannot stress enough the importance of that little nudge to check one’s words. People joke that I have few functioning filters. Oh, but I do. And I use them.

  7. I had not heard this, Janet. But if anyone questioned how a departure would be handled, I believe you answered so beautifully with Mary’s retirement.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thank you, Shelli, for mentioning how I handled Mary’s agenting departure. I tried to make it as smooth as possible for everyone. Even though any major change has bumps naturally built into it.

  8. Carol Ashby says:

    I had a pastor one time who said the way to shut down gossip in particular and rumors in general was to ask the person spreading it if you could quote them by name.
    *The Bible has a lot to say about gossip and its companion, slander. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.” Proverbs 26:20 Jesus lumped it in with some pretty evil things in Mark 7:21-22: “For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.”
    *My approach to rumors is to counter them with facts when someone else speaks them and to try to resist the temptation to spread them myself.

  9. I hadn’t heard that rumor, Janet. I like the way you approached the handling of it. Get to the source and handle it there, when possible. I found it fascinating to read how certain companies are “handling” rumors. The bottom line sometimes dictates how a company wants to convey their plans.
    *I’ve been the subject of gossip, among teachers, many years ago. I wasn’t bold enough at the time to confront the “mean girls” on the staff. If it happened now, I think I would be bolder to gently talk with them and straighten things out.
    *Thanks for sharing your approach. It makes a lot of sense!

  10. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Janet, I had not heard that rumor. And knowing you even a bit, I’d find it hard to believe. You certainly put a lot of thought (and research) into how to best respond ~ continuing to be a good guide to us. I suspect the rumor is in the dustbin by now, but if it reappears, you have dozens more sources who will smack it down ~ with grace, of course. Rumors can easily begin in large organizations when a person runs with their own interpretation of someone’s words (just consider the Laurel/Yanny example of last week!) without checking. Tracking back to the source is important. And humbly being able/willing to listen and also explain one’s words. Thanks for sharing this surprising situation.

  11. Jerusha Agen says:

    Very practical post, Janet! Thank you! So sorry to hear you were the victim of a rumor like that. And, along with everyone else, it’s a joy to hear your assurances that retirement (and closing B&S) is not in the plan for you. 🙂 I was the victim of a very unpleasant rumor once, but I didn’t have opportunity to publicly stomp it out, as you’re able to do here. I could never determine the person who started it either. So I just told as many people as I could that it wasn’t true and, given my flabbergasted and totally confused response, I think they believed me. 🙂 Who knows what others are still thinking about me as a result of that. Apparently I was supposed to have been the victim of something wrong, which I suppose is better than a rumor that I was the perpetrator of something wrong!

  12. I hadn’t heard the rumor. I know all the people in your agency are honest (seek justice,) compassionate (love mercy,) and know their place in the world (walk humbly with God) so I wouldn’t believe a bad rumor about you if I did hear one.

  13. First, I want to say I am so glad the rumor isn’t true, and I was unaware of it until reading this post. Had I heard it before teadimg this, I would have been heartbroken, especially since I am looking forward to seeing you at the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference.

    Second, I appreciate the instructions on how to handle a rumor, and the examples.

    Third, and final bit is unfortunately, yes, I have had to address rumors started about me from highschool years, into even a couple years ago. I have always been one to speak up for others if they have been mistreated or misunderstood ,
    and for myself as well. I don’t like falsities be it a rumor started accidentally or purposely. I first make certain I understand what the rumor consists of and assure whoever has shared it with me that it is untrue and give them the truth and and needed clarification. I locate the source, and will handle it in a manner that assumes the person was not doing it for harm. I always strive to be gracious as well as forthright. Thankfully, this has never been much of a problem.

    • Janet Grant says:

      At the conference, be sure to introduce yourself as Elizabeth Bowan who comments on our blog. If I don’t see you early in the day, I’ll need all the help I can get placing you because I will have had a zillion conversations by then.

      • I will be sure to let you know. Also, I figured you would be inundated with so many aspiring writers, so I picked an early one to one before you ate lunch, or faces and names all meshed together. I will see you at 10:50 am, Saturday, July 14th at the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference. I’m looking forward to our time.

        It may have been a typo. We all have them on occasion…often thanks to auto text. I suspect that is what happened with my last name which is Bohan.

        No worries, our name has been spelled in many ways by many people. 🙂

      • Janet Grant says:

        Elizabeth Bohan, if you introduced yourself as Elizabeth Bowan, I might get REALLY confused!

  14. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    This is coming in late…but has anyone heard further news about Harlequin’s Love-Inspired Historical line? I’d heard it was to be closed down the beginning of this year, yet just saw a new story out.