Last November, at the height of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, a post appeared on Facebook falsely claiming Costco was offering a $75 online coupon. The retail giant quickly quashed the hoax using traditional media and Facebook to declare, “This is a SCAM.”
The incident is a clear example of an effective corporate response to an online falsehood, says Tim Hannigan, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta School of Business. “They were able to very successfully get on this to control the message,” he says.
Learning to manage rumours “should be part of the core competency of a modern C-suite,” says Hannigan, who, along with other researchers, is studying the impact of gossip—good and ill—on a company’s reputation, new product development, and customer and supplier relationships.
The temptation to say “Psst, did you know?” runs deep. But not all rumours are detrimental. A tech company, especially, might want to trigger a buzz about a new product or service, turning to industry bloggers and journalists as conduits for controlled leaks. Even a company as notoriously secretive as Apple, Hannigan says, sometimes publicly interacts with bloggers and industry watchers to whet their appetite for an imminent release.
In one study, Hannigan and his co-authors interviewed 30 members of an unnamed consumer electronics firm to analyze how it incorporated rumours into product development.
“It was surprising to find rumours used widely in the decision-making process,” the researchers reported. Despite some tension among employees about how to interact with blogging sites, the researchers found the company used external gossip to help assess its new product innovations.
Jeff Gadway, a former head of product marketing at BlackBerry, says company officials initially had an adversarial relationship with bloggers and tech journalists who fed off hearsay. “Later on, we came to realize our best strategy was to try to embrace those particular sites, and build constructive and aligned relationships with those journalists,” says Gadway, who co-founded Galvanize Worldwide, a marketing and communications consultancy based in Waterloo, Ont., in 2015.
The collaborative approach paid off. “When [bloggers and journalists] heard a rumour, instead of just publishing it right away, they would contact us and give us an opportunity to comment, to add texture or, if something was blatantly wrong, to respond,” he says.
For the 2013 launch of the BlackBerry 10 operating system, he says the company “really embraced” the use of selective information sharing during a year-long strategy.
“By releasing information in a slow and controlled way, we were able to mitigate rumours and speculation, while getting and keeping customers excited and engaged about the new product leading up to launch,” Gadway says.
Speculation is a “blessing and a curse,” observes Scott Greenlay, a former national director of the technology practice for MNP, a national accounting, tax and business consulting firm. “In the private sector, you never want to admit to manipulating the rumour, and you don’t want to admit when you have had to react to it,” he says.
False or misleading information cannot be ignored, Greenlay emphasizes, because it moves at such a high speed through social media. Companies need to develop a risk management plan long before a damaging piece of gossip surfaces unexpectedly, he says. “When it happens, it does not take months or weeks––it takes hours for the rumour mill to possibly destroy your company.”
Now working as a consultant in the tech industry, Greenlay advises executives to anticipate the possible outflow of leaks from within their organizations. For example, senior leaders should write emails as if they will be read by others outside the company.
The bottom line, say the experts, is that you need to create a strategy to manage the whispers about your firm. “If you don’t have a plan and tools in place, get them now,” urges Greenlay. “With the rumour mill today, one individual has the ability to have the voice of a lion.”