In 1988 the World Health Assembly launched a campaign to eradicate polio by year 2000. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and United States Centres for Disease Control (CDC) working with National governments to achieve the mandate.

Upon the launch of this initiative, incident of polio-induced paralysis fell from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just under 500 cases in 2001; according to a report in Global Public Health published in December 2013. But Nigeria, an endemic country which accounted for over half of global cases in 2012, brought a major setback. Rumours spread in the Northern part of the country associating oral polio with cancer, HIV and sterility. This led to eleven months boycott of polio vaccination by five northern states in 2003.

Before the boycott was lifted, Nigerian political and religious leaders had to be sent to South Africa, India and Indonesia to see the vaccines in use and demonstrate its safety. And the fact that they were produced in Indonesia with a country with a huge population of Muslims also demonstrated adherence to Islamic laws which was one of the concerns of religious leaders of Northern Nigeria. But the harm to the progress of the initiative had been done. Nigeria is still struggling to eradicate polio today. In her book Crisis Communication: A Casebook Approach, Kathleen Fearn-Banks classifies rumour as a type of crisis for good reasons. A rumour can scuttle the achievement of organizational objectives and put a company out of business.


Rumor Defined

According to Kathleen Fearn-Banks, “a rumour is information passed by word of mouth and electronic communications with no verification of fact and no credible source. Rumours can be  positive or negative. They can be absolutely false or partly false, or they can be undeniably true or premature facts.” In other words, rumours are unconfirmed reports or messages with sources that are difficult to trace.

Rumours are Public Relations nightmares. Because of its destructive tendency, every PR professional worries when the next rumour will surface. They know it is their mandate to control it in order to prevent damage to corporate reputations. I believe the best way to get prepared is to understand its nature. In this piece, I will share with you five core facts about rumours to lay the foundation for effective management of it.

FACT NO. I: Rumors spread when there is uncertainty and anxiety.

The human mind abhors a vacuum. We want to deal with predictable situations; otherwise, we become anxious and seek outlets for information to enable us understand the situation. Rumors prosper when there is lack of information from relevant authorities when there is need to clarify a situation, especially a threatening one. Quoting Tamotsu  Shibutani in their book, Rumour psychology, Nicholas Difonzo and Prashant Bordia explain that when formal information is absent, people compensate by informally interpreting the situation. So, rumours can be seen as a group interpretation of a confusing or uncertain situation.

Fact No. 2: Rumors die hard.

For several years there were calls for boycott of Procter & Gamble products in the United States of America upon claims that the company had ties with the Church of Satan. The rumor had it that the President of the Company appeared on the Phil Donahue show on March 1994 to announce that due to the openness of society today, he was emboldened to step off the closet to declare his association with the Church of Satan. And when asked if coming out on TV would hurt his business, he replied that there were not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference. According to the rumor, he went on to state that large chunks of the company’s profit were used to support the Church of Satan.

The rumour lingered on for years. It wasn’t until March 2007, when the company won a lawsuit against Amway distributors for spreading it and was awarded $19.3million in damages, that the rumour died a natural death.

Fact NO 3: There is no simple reason why rumors emerge and why people spread it.

Rumors could emerge from what has been termed “the creative mischief of the youth”, or it could be a symptom of uncertainty, especially in stressful times. It could also emanate from the selfish motives of individuals or organizations.

There is no single reason why rumours emerge, and there is equally no single reason why people spread it. This understanding should help the PR professional to consider several options when trying to control rumours.

Why do people spread rumors? In his book, Rumor has it: A Practical Guide to working with Rumors, Jon Bugge states that different people have different motivations to spreading rumors, and these include:

  • To explain a situation or an event
  • To share useful or entertaining situation
  • To define oneself by being “in the know” or making others look bad
  • To develop relationship by using information as a currency
  • To feel connected to issues affecting them
  • To mislead or deceive; often economically or politically motivated

Understanding these facts is crucial to effective PR strategy development when fighting a rumour.

Fact NO. 4: Rumors can be used as competitive tools.

Rumors are not just the past times of psychological twisted individuals motivated by hate, jealousy and poor self-esteem to bring others down. Often, they are planted by rival companies to tarnish a competitor and its brands; all in a bid to undermine customers’ loyalty, promote consumers boycott of its goods or services, damage financial market performance and undermine the impact of its marketing communication messages.

Studies have shown that rumors about personnel changes and job security impact negatively on employees’ morale, employees’ stress and employees’ trust with obvious implications on corporate performance. Commercial rumors, as they are sometimes called, are usually targeted to weaken an organization’s structures and processes, giving those spreading the rumor an upper hand in the marketplace. Procter & Gamble’s satanic association rumor is a case in point.

Fact NO 5: Rumors thrive where critical thinking is low.

It will be foolhardy for any PR professional to think that a rumour is absurd and therefore neglect it. People without creative thinking skills will believe just about anything and spread it, as long as the story touches or fascinates them.

Many believed the chicken with six legs rumour spread against KFC; but to some, it sounded very foolish. Why would KFC create a genetically modified chicken with six legs? Why six legs and not two legs of a normal chicken? Are chicken legs a special delicacy with added value for KFC? No one cared to ask these questions.

In rumour management, as in any other PR work, facts are sacred. They dictate the strategies and techniques PR people use to solve problems. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence”, so said John Adam.