Political Propaganda in Organizations – Allport on Rumors
A rumor, can be simply a story or assessment that someone has about another person, situation, subject, idea, or topic. For example, you might overhear two friends talking about how great the movie The Cable Guy was. However, when the conversation ends and the person you talked to says that it was really not as good as people made it out to be, you have heard a rumor. This type of gossip spreads quickly because people are interested in it; in what is being said, in who is saying it, and why.
Allport, in his classic The Psychology of Rumors, defined a rumor as “A false story that is circulated in social settings.” This definition fits well with our ability to communicate through written as well as spoken word today. As we have learned, all communication is a form of rumor. This is especially true in the workplace.
In order to understand how rumors become gossip or how they can become a problem, it is important to understand how rumors gain momentum. The goal is usually some kind of self-protection, or to propel a project or argument forward. The source of the rumor becomes secondary. Propaganda is defined by Allport as a “planned and systematic use of persuasive tactics to promote a political or social cause”. In Allport’s model, there are three forms of propaganda: formal, informal, and formal rumors.
In the case of rumors, the goal is to spread them so that they become the basis for other discussions. Informal rumors are typically not intended to have any long-term consequences. When rumors circulate within informal networks, they are often seen as a reflection of what is going on in that particular network. People in the network interpret the informal nature of the rumors in different ways. In this way, rumor becomes a source of information, and not necessarily a source of truth.
By understanding how psychology identifies Rumors we can begin to understand how it applies to organizations, and particularly politics. According to Allport, psychology identifies two types of Rumors: genuine and false. Of course, in politics the purpose of spreading rumors is to sway public opinion. In an organizational context, though, the goal is usually to cement existing organizational values and improve employee-customer relations. No doubt that would include the use of rumors as well.
The United States military experienced a number of rumors during World War Two. One of the most widespread rumors was that the British were engaged in a secret plan to attack the United States. This rumor enabled greater unity among American forces and allowed the US to come to grips with the situation more quickly than had been the norm. In all, rumors are useful in building communication channels and in getting organizations to communicate their needs and interests. Organizations need to recognize their value and take advantage of those opportunities.