Rumor and Crisis Management

Rumor is information that spreads by word of mouth or through the media. It is often false and may cause alarm or panic among people. Some rumors, such as the one that nuclear leakage from the Fukushima plant in Japan will pollute salt, are even widely spread on the Internet and cause the public to make irrational decisions. Other rumors, such as the rumor that the United States had low oil reserves during World War II, were more factual and led to rationing of gasoline and food.

Rumors have been used in a variety of ways, from military intelligence to managing crises. Many studies have examined the relationship between rumors and crisis management, and some studies have found that rumors can be more effective than formal communication in getting information out to staff members in a hurry. Rumors can also be used to identify the source of a rumor and its originator.

According to the rumor theory, there are four components that contribute to a rumor’s success: anxiety (situational and personality), ambiguity, information importance, and social sanctioning. People who have a tendency to be anxious are more likely to start rumors. Ambiguity makes rumors difficult to disprove, and information that is not important to an individual or society will not lead to a rumor. Social sanctions, such as those from the government, can discourage a rumor from spreading because the government wants to maintain public order and calm.

To study the behavior of a rumor, researchers have looked at archived discussions on the Internet and BITnet. Each rumor discussion was coded for its characteristics, such as prudent, apprehensive, authenticating, providing information, belief, disbelief, sense-making and digressive. The result was a four-stage pattern that showed how people discuss rumors:

The most common type of rumor is a negative one, such as an enemy surprise attack. Negative rumors tend to spread more quickly than positive ones, and the person who first hears the rumor will most likely believe it. This can cause a domino effect, in which the first person to spread the rumor will have a greater impact on the crowd than others who follow it.

Other types of rumors include bogie or fear rumors and wedge-driving rumors, which are meant to damage interpersonal relationships. Knapp studied the rumor-spreading patterns of individuals and found that some are more radical and will immediately believe the rumors they hear, while others are steady and will contemplate and seek confirmation before believing or spreading them.

Some communities have set up rumor control centers to help combat destructive rumors. These centers usually have a centralized telephone number that people can call for accurate information. The center may be managed by a city official or by members of a community, such as a local church group or neighborhood association. In addition to establishing this number, the community may organize efforts to determine the accuracy of a rumor. These efforts should include a cross section of the community.