Friday, February 16, 2001

Whispers can wound corporate giants

Companies fight to protect good names

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Behind the scenes at most major corporations, public relations and communications officers have been waging war with a nebulous, virtually invisible, enemy for years.

        Their adversary has the power to bring even the biggest corporate giant to its knees with attacks that often begin with a whispered phrase, such as “I don't know if it's true, but I heard that ...”

        False corporate rumors — claims commonly spread over the Internet and whose origins are almost impossible to track — have marred the reputations of such Fortune 500 companies as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Cincinnati's own Procter & Gamble.

        “It's always the successful operations that are targeted by these rumors,” said Frederick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University whose book, Rumor in the Marketplace, has made him a leading authority on the topic. “The bigger the target, the more sensational the story. The reason rumors persist and thrive is because they're atten tion-getting and dramatic.”

        Some corporate rumors have survived for decades.

        Reoccuring claims that Coca-Cola uses cocaine in its soft drink formula surfaced in the 1920s. McDonald's has been battling rumors that its hamburgers are made with everything from worms to crushed eyeballs since the late 1970s.

        For years, P&G has been the target of rumors that it's a haven for devil-worshipers because its moon-and-stars logo contains what some people claim looks like 666 — a sign of Satan.

        More recently, the $40 billion consumer-products maker's Febreze fabric refresher has been rumored to kill pets.

        None of these claims has ever been verified, but that doesn't stop people from believing them and passing them on, Mr. Koenig said.

        “Sometimes a person will believe a rumor because it fits their world view,” he said. “If you believe that Satan is alive and well and living in Indiana, then you welcome a story about some big corporation there being involved in Satanism because it justifies your world view.”

        Just how damaging can such rumors be?

        “It depends,” Mr. Koenig said. “If you're a small company running a restaurant, and someone says there's a leper working in the kitchen, unless something's done about it immediately, your business could go under in two weeks. But a company like Coca-Cola has been hearing the rumor about it having narcotics in its formula for many years. Has it affected them? No. In fact, their sales have gone up.”

        Still, most marketers are fiercely protective of their names and reputations of their products, and have even taken court action to defend them.

        P&G filed a lawsuit in the mid-1990s, alleging that Amway Corp. distributors revived rumors linking the household-goods maker to satanic cults.

        A federal court judge in Houston dismissed the lawsuit in 1999, but an appeals court in New Orleans ruled Wednesday that the judge must review P&G's claims again.

        Yet the Amway case is an exception when it comes to battling corporate rumors, because most of the time the company being attacked has no idea where the rumor originated.

        “These rumors are like a (computer) virus,” said Vicky Mayer, who handles the recurring Satanism rumors about P&G's trademark. “When it's started over the Internet, the person that starts it or passes it along, even unwittingly, is not going to take responsibility for it. That's why it's so hard to fight, because it's so difficult to find the source of the rumor.”

        Ms. Mayer said she follows a short list of overarching principles when confronted with such rumors.

        The list includes getting the facts out as broadly and as quickly as possible through the media and other credible third-party sources.

        For example, on the rumor that tried to link P&G's moon-and-stars logo to Satanism, the company solicited letters of support from key Christian leaders and Christian publications that reported the claim as a hoax.

        Ms. Mayer has also pointed callers concerned about the rumor to generic Web sites such as or to confirm the rumor is widely known to be a hoax.

        Ms. Mayer is just one of dozens of corporate communications officers who deal with venomous rumors more often than you might think.

        A recent survey of 74 experienced public relations professionals — all serving top global corporations — by the Institute for Public Relations at the University of Florida found that harmful rumors are commonplace.

        All the respondents in the survey reported hearing a rumor they were concerned about on average once a week.

        And 65, or 88 percent, of the respondents reported hearing such rumors at least monthly.

        When faced with such problems, the respondents said they typically relied on anecdotal advice or their own experiences but rarely followed any established strategy for rumor management.


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