Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Taking the Wind Out of the Rumour Mill

by Basskaran Nair, Straits Times, October 3, 2005

'THERE are a lot of things being said about us around the world that aren't true', according to Ms Karen Hughes, the American official given the task of polishing the post-Iraq war image of the United States. She was referring to the rumours swirling as a result of Hurricane Katrina and the on-going saga in Iraq. As Ms Hughes found, rumours have to be managed away.

For rumours can have disastrous effects. In 1857, when the British introduced the Enfield rifle to India, rumours circulated that cartridges used in the rifle were covered in a grease made from pig and cow fat - when in fact it was composed of mutton fat and wax. The scuttlebutt led to a mutiny by Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

More usually, rumours do not have such fatal consequences. But for those in the business world, unfounded talk can be very costly. That is why one of the duties of public-relations practitioners is dealing with rumours. But to do so properly, such a professional needs to understand the psychology of rumours.

Variety of rumours

MOST researchers agree that rumours fall into three broad categories.

Wedge-driven: These tend to be politically motivated. Of 1,089 rumours examined by American researcher R.H. Knapp during World War II, 66 per cent were wedge-driving or divisive rumours. Most were directed against the then-American government and armed forces, while others were racially motivated. This is the category of rumours that the Americans are now facing in their hearts-and-minds battle in the Middle East.

Wishful: Often, these affect the financial community, and can involve people who dabble in stocks and hope to profit by influencing share prices.

Anxiety: These are usually spawned by emotion - often anxiety or fear. Once started, such rumours take on a life of their own. Stories from the 1970s and 1980s about urban 'head hunting' are examples. In parts of South-east Asia, the head-hunting rumour is steeped in superstitious stories that a human sacrifice - involving beheading - is part of the routine rites for building bridges, as improbable as that is.

Tracing the origin of rumours can be almost impossible. Rumours change form as they are passed on. In the head-hunting rumour, nobody ever actually reports seeing a headless body or a head. They always say a distant relative or a close friend saw it. Others, to add credibility, might 'quote' a friend meeting someone else who works in a mortuary who claims to have seen several headless bodies.

Which leads us to distortions. Research shows that there are three major ways that rumours are distorted. They are described as 'levelling', 'sharpening' and 'assimilation'.

In levelling, fewer and fewer details are mentioned as the rumour ages. Details essential to understanding the true situation are levelled down or deleted. Conversely, in sharpening, there is an emphasis on a limited number of details.

Exaggeration is used to provide dramatic effect. Levelling and sharpening coexist. After levelling, the rumour will invariably be subject to sharpening. It is almost as lyrical as a musical piece. For example, in one version of the head-hunting rumour, people spoke of individuals in cars roaming the streets looking for victims, and would even offer the plate number of the cars. This is supposed to invest the rumour with a (totally false) measure of solidity.

Assimilation occurs as people attempt to complete incomplete pictures or fill in the gaps as they 'see' them. It is easier to remember just one item, and therefore some summary phrase will wind up in successive accounts of the story.

Managing rumours away

SO MUCH for the psychology. How is the public-relations practitioner to manage rumours? There is a three-step approach:

  • Provide complete and accurate information to the media, even if it means acknowledging shortcomings within the company;
  • Issue as much news as quickly as possible in order to fill the vacuum of ambiguity with reliable information;
  • Campaign deliberately against rumour-mongering by showing its harmful effects, its inaccuracies and the low motives of the originators and carriers of such tales.

In some large American corporations, there is a battery of public-affairs specialists sensitive to the slightest suspicious vibrations. Then, they act through this strategy: Tackling the rumour head-on by identifying and ridiculing it; outflanking the rumour by rebutting it without repeating it; and postponing comment until it is prepared for full disclosure, if certain elements of the rumour are true.

Effective public relations means it is best to disprove a rumour before people have time to conclude that the story is 'true' and before others, who have a personal stake in the matter, hide the facts. This nips the problem in the bud and prevents the rumour from taking root. It is essential to present the facts as fully as possible to end idle speculation.

A key factor is that the audience must trust the source of information which is dispelling the rumour. This comes about if the source has a track record of being open and honest when disclosing information.

Indeed, the strength of rumours hinges on the credibility of formal news sources. When news is scarce or when official channels are closed or unreliable, there is a high reliance on word-of-mouth communication for both bad and good news - and too often, fiction dressed as news.

Looking ahead, governments, companies, and individuals have to reckon with cyberspace. The medieval forms of village life are now flourishing on the Internet - a world where everything people do is both public and permanent. As the new global village, the cyberspace increasingly occupied by bloggers has become home to rumour-mongers, busybodies and snoops. The reach of the Internet means rumours can spread further and faster, requiring a commensurate degree of nimbleness among those whose work is to fight outright fiction.

But to meet this challenge successfully, the public-relations professional must first understand how rumours function.

The writer, a public-relations consultant, is author of From Main Street To Cyber Street: Changes In The Practice Of Communication.