Hoax-Busting: Managing Gossip and Rumors Online

We've all seen our share of Internet hoaxes. The random e-mail calling for a boycott of a major oil company; the forwarded message of a worried mother whose daughter was sickened by a popular food; or the blog post claiming a trendy fashion store is linked to terrorist activities.

Unfortunately, journalistic integrity does not always apply to the social media world. The Web provides an unfiltered platform for any disenfranchised consumer to anonymously damage reputations with the click of a button. While Web hoaxes and rumors may seem like minor nuisances, they should not be dismissed, as they have the potential to erode reputations and create a businesswide dilemma.

What should organizations do if they are the victims of an e-mail hoax? The strategies below can help effectively counter false accusations online.

*Upfront Research: When facing an online hoax, first conduct an external and internal audit to identify how prevalent the discussion is among various stakeholders. These initial audits are critical because they help determine if the rumor is gaining or losing momentum, which enables you to decide how to allocate the resources to fight it.

*External Audit: Conducting an external audit will assess the rumor's prevalence on the Web and allow for a measured response. Use tools such as Google Blog Search, Technorati and Blog Pulse to audit blogs, forums, Web sites and other online outlets. Remember to keep a detailed list of sites commenting on the hoax. This step will help verify if online information has been deleted or revised per your efforts. It will also help identify any new mentions that pop up.

*Internal Audit: Work with customer relations staff to develop a comprehensive tracking report of hoax inquiries. In addition to online monitoring updates, customer inquiry reports are a smart way to gauge hoax-busting efforts.

Also, track employee concerns. Often employees may hear about the hoax from friends and family, so make sure employees can share what they are hearing outside the office.

When dealing with a hoax, track some or all of these elements on a daily basis:

  • The number of hoax-related stakeholder inquiries (i.e., e-mails, phone calls, letters);

  • Level of employee discussion and anxiety related to the hoax; and,

  • Media calls about the rumor.

*A Tiered Strategy: To have an effective hoax-busting campaign, not every tactic described below needs to be implemented. If reactive efforts work, then ratcheting up the proactive outreach may not be necessary. A hoax-busting response can include an all-out blitz, a quick post on a Web site or simply nothing at all. Keep in mind, not every piece of negative information about your company online warrants a response.

After conducting an internal and external analysis, consider implementing a two-tiered response strategy. First, activate internal response resources and then reach out proactively to external audiences. After every step, monitor and analyze feedback indicators to determine each technique's effectiveness.

Tier 1 - Leveraging Internal Reactive Response Resources

*Engage in a Web-based Response: A new media rumor needs to be addressed with new media techniques. Identify a place on your organization's Web site to post messaging debunking the hoax, or consider developing a dedicated "Hoaxes and Rumors" page so stakeholders can find accurate information that counters the falsehood. Ensure the page can easily be found via Web searches by using the most effective search engine optimization techniques.

*Enlist Employees as Advocates: Notify employees about the rumor. Provide them with simple, hoax-busing messaging and direct them to your "Hoaxes and Rumors" Web page so they can respond to friends and family who may have been fooled.

*Develop a Media Response: Prepare your media relations team to respond to any reporter inquiries. Even a savvy journalist may make an inquiry if the con is somewhat believable.

*Create an Integrated Consumer Response: Many consumers inquiring about a hoax will be loyal users of your product or service. Therefore it is critical to respond to every inquiry with consistent messaging that dispels the rumor and focuses on the facts. Consider asking consumers to help further debunk the hoax by having them send an e-mail clarifying the confusion to those who initially forwarded the crank e-mail to them.

Tier 2 - Proactive Outreach to External Audiences

*Dispatch the Truth Squad: First, examine popular myth-busting Web sites (see sidebar) to identify your hoax. If it is listed, then your hoax is probably circulating. Depending on the information on the sites, consider contacting the sites to ensure the hoax is accurately debunked. When contacting them, request they post a link to your Hoaxes and Rumors page. If these third-party sites do debunk your myth, include links to them in your customer inquiry responses.

Through the external audit, you may identify influential, popular Web sites, blogs and forums spreading false information. To get the truth out, transparently post a brief message on these sites by identifying yourself as a company representative and including a link to your Hoaxes and Rumors page in your post.

Please note that posting a formal hoax-busting response on a site that doesn't receive lots of traffic or comments may legitimize that forum and prompt additional comments trying to goad the company into an ongoing conversation on the hoax or other topics.

*Mine E-mail Inquiries for Additional Outreach: An organization may receive an e-mail inquiry about a rumor that has been forwarded to other recipients. While most of them probably deleted it, some may have read it and believed it. Usually a forwarded e-mail has other e-mail addresses included in it besides the sender's. If that is the case, your organization may decide to proactively contact those other recipients to alert them about hoax.

Before disseminating a hoax-busting e-mail to individuals who did not directly contact your organization, discuss the maneuver with your legal team and managers. Proactively contacting individuals who did not directly provide you with their e-mail address may fan the flames of a hoax more than it quells it. However, some organization have proactively reached out to these stakeholders and received kudos for alleviating confusion. PRN


This article was written by Erik Mueller (vice president of corporate affairs for Weber Shandwick Worldwide and adjunct professor in the College of Communications at DePaul University in Chicago) and Joshua Morton (senior account executive of corporate affairs for Weber Shandwick Worldwide). It is featured in the recently released PR News Crisis Management Volume 2 Guidebook. For more information on this and other PR News Guidebooks, visit https://www.prnewsonline.com/store.

Hoax-Busting Web Sites

These five popular third-party sites can be used to help identify, track and debunk popular hoaxes.

1. http://www.snopes.com: The most popular myth-busting Web site.

2. http://www.urbanlegends.about.com: An often-updated blog by David Emery that features an Urban Legends newsletter.

3. http://www.hoax-slayer.com: Debunks popular e-mail hoaxes with a monthly newsletter.

4. http://www.truthorfiction.com: A large directory of hoaxes and rumors by category.

5. http://www.hoaxbusters.ciac.org: A site run by the U.S. government's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) to identify popular Web hoaxes and scams.