Many years ago in Ohio, the McDonald's Corporation was the victim of a nasty rumor. The focus of the rumor was that McDonald's hamburgers contained worm meat in them.
The company made a determined effort to counteract the rumor by posting a letter from the Secretary of Agriculture which claimed that hamburger produced by the effected establishments is "wholesome, properly identified and in compliance with standards prescribed by Food Safety and Quality Service regulations."
McDonalds personnel even utilized public relation statements claiming "It doesn't make sense even from a financial viewpoint. Red worms cost between $5.00 and $8.00 a pound. Hamburger meat costs just over a dollar a pound. You'd have to be nuts to put worms in your hamburgers. You just couldn't afford it."
RUMORS TYPICALLY REMAIN STRONG
In spite of these attempts to quell the rumor, it remained strong. This result is not surprising! In fact in many cases where rumor is present, an attempt by the company to stop it by refuting it is not effective.
Other examples include the never ending rumor that Proctor & Gamble is in some form affiliated with the devil, that Pop Rocks candy explodes in kids' stomachs or that a small child was bitten by a snake while her mom was shopping at K-Mart. These are all rumors with not one shred of evidence supporting their truth!
To many business organizations, this may seem appear to be quite troublesome particularly in light of two simple facts. First, the frequency of rumor occurrence is on the rise in the population and secondly, most rumors that are spread are negative in nature. Recent research reports that 92.6% of rumors about companies or brands heard in the past year by consumers were negative in nature.
Negative rumors can happen to any company. It doesn't distinguish between dot.coms or bricks and mortar businesses.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SROP A RUMOR?
So the question remains, what can a company do to stop the spread of rumor? As I said above, refuting the rumor doesn't seem to work. Why? Simply because the entity which typically refutes the rumor is the company which is itself the subject of the rumor.
So refuting a negative rumor about one's own company is the norm. It is expected and hence is not perceived to be credible.
If refutation doesn't work, then what remains? Research has proposed two other rumor refuting strategies. The first is called "storage". That is, at the point at which the rumor is being spread, a second object is introduced which is linked to the subject of the rumor and which is perceived to be very positive. The second object is present so that consumers make an association with it and the focus of the rumor thereby enhancing their attitude toward the rumor object.
So for example in the McDonald's example, when the worm rumor was introduced, consumers were told that a famous French restaurant typically uses worms in a sauce. It was hoped that the favorable image of worms in this context would translate into a more favorable image of McDonalds in spite of the worm rumor. That is, the worms were put into a more favorable light (they probably squinted!).
The problem with a storage strategy is that it typically works at the point in which the rumor is spread. Since a rumor, once it gets started, essentially mushrooms, it quickly becomes less than efficient to combat rumor using a storage strategy. So what is left?
GET CONSUMERS TO THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE
The remaining strategy is called "retrieval". This strategy is based on an attempt to disassociate in consumer's memory the rumor object from the rumor. That is, in the context of McDonalds, consumers have many different thoughts and beliefs about the restaurant chain. If they can be directed to think these thoughts instead of McDonalds=worms, then the impact of the rumor would be weakened.
For example, during the time period of the worm rumor in Ohio, McDonalds could have advertised their cleanliness and the quality of their food. Here, no mention of worms are present, yet the rumor is indirectly addressed by getting consumers to realize that a clean McDonalds is a wormless McDonalds.
The point to take away is that while rumor related to organizations is increasing in frequency, the obvious strategy of refutation may not be effective.
Importantly, the tools of storage and particularly retrieval may be effectively utilized to forestall the negative impact of rumor.
Better yet, don't let the rumors start.
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