This article has been quoted in the New York Times. Since formal channels of internal communication don’t address all the socialization needs of employees, informal channels play a significant role in their daily lives. Employees will always engage in informal conversations. These are traditionally face-to-face or verbal conversations, but digital channels are increasingly used. Rumors often are one of the outcomes of such interactions. Communication professionals have a key responsibility to plan and implement strategies to counter rumors on the grapevine. (This article is about rumors in the business world rather than in the broader community. For instance, rumors about COVID-19 and vaccination are not covered.)
Rumors interpret unverified, unconfirmed information of uncertain origin and doubtful accuracy that have got into general circulation. And if managers and supervisors don’t attend to the communication needs of their employees, the informal avenue of internal rumors definitely grows. A rumor may be mostly true, such as aspects of unconfirmed bad or good news being prematurely discussed by unofficial sources. This article explains how to counter rumors on the grapevine in the workplace.
Gossip in the workplace, which can be considered to comprise job-related gossip and non-job related gossip, is when a person produces, hears or participates in evaluative comments about someone who is not present in the conversation, according to Foster, 2004, quoted in Chien-Chih et al., 2014. Researchers quoted in this paper found that about 14% of workplace coffee-break chat is gossip, and about 66% of general conversation between employees is related to social topics concerning talk about other people: “The purpose of gossip is to entertain and amuse,” but other researchers suggest that gossip is essentially negative and stealthy, eg, sensitive, personal, and is meant to be private. False and incomplete information, typically transmitted via gossip, triggers employee cynicism.
Online rumors can spread instantly within the organization and around the internet. What’s more, response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that online communication is used much more than previously due to employees working remotely. In recent years, research attention has included information technology and new media as drivers of social and communication systems, particularly within organizations, as observed in a qualitative project conducted by Banerjee & Singh in 2015). Employees and others can post rumors in websites, blogs, and interactive social media platforms where users are allowed to provide comments. The spread of anonymous online rumors is aided by the lack of censorship, vast reach, and instant speed of online communication compared with traditional channels, as noted by Robinson & Thelen, 2018. This means communicators need to give high priority to employee communication, and to closely monitor social media comments about the organization and its leaders. Employees seeking or sharing inflammatory informal information online or in digital messaging can quickly cause a shock to an organization’s reputation and bottom line. Therefore it is essential to maintain active formal communication to strengthen internal and external stakeholder trust.
Workplace rumors are mainly those of interest to employees, suppliers, or service providers (ie, people who are associated with the production, distribution or sale of the organization’s products or services.
Observations by Carol Kinsey Goman (2019):
Goman quotes a survey respondent who she says ‘sums it up perfectly’:
“Formal communication focuses on messages the company wants to deliver, with a scope management feels is appropriate at a time management feels is right. The reason the grapevine plays such an important role is that it delivers the information employees care about, provides the details employees think they should know, and is delivered at the time employees are interested.”
The ‘grapevine’ is the informal communication network found within every organization. It comprises the informal transmission of information, gossip or rumor from person to person. The term can be traced back to the US Civil War in the 1860s. Since battlefronts moved frequently, army telegraph wires were strung loosely from tree to tree across battlefields, somewhat like wires used to support grapevines. The wires were used to carry telegraph messages created in Morse code (the electronic alphabet, invented in 1844) because the telephone wasn’t invented until 1876. Since the lines often were strung hastily during battle, and messages were composed in a hurry, the resulting communication tended to be garbled and confusing. Soon, any rumor was said to have been heard ‘on the grapevine.’
Past research found an estimated 80% of grapevine information is oriented toward the individual while 20% concerns the company – Mishra, quoting Nofel (1985). Grapevine communication is estimated to be 70-90% accurate – Mishra (1990), quoting Simmons (1985). Robinson & Thelen, 2019, quote Davis, 1973, who stated that 75% to 90% of information disseminated through the grapevine is correct. Using a survey to collect data from 22,000 shift workers in different industries, Ettorre (1997) found that 55% of workers get most of their information from the grapevine.
Information via the grapevine invariably moves much faster than through formal communication channels. This is its greatest attribute. Social media, text and Twitter messages have joined emails as electronic channels of communication, enabling rumors to spread at lightning speed. Nevertheless, the grapevine still thrives as a face-to-face and word-of-mouth platform. When someone says, “I heard that…”, it often means they are introducing a rumor.
Research shows that grapevine information tends to be about 75% to 90% accurate. Since many rumors start from someone’s account of an actual event, there are usually strong elements of truth in a rumor. However, such grapevine information often contains big errors as people put their own interpretation onto an event or information they have seen, and then they pass it on in a process of partial or selective recall. This is usually a case of confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Though not always harmful, such workplace tales can sap productivity, lower employee morale, tarnish reputations and interfere with formal organizational communication.
The grapevine can play an important part in the ‘management by walking around’ approach. This is when managers move around the office for a period of time without a particular objective other than catching up informally with employees they come across – just doing minor chores for staff that give the boss the opportunity to stay with them and engage in small talk. Doing this allows them to pick up relevant rumors. They would not be aware of such information if they had stayed in their office all day.
Managers can sometimes purposely send messages through the grapevine to test the likely reaction to a possible management decision. This can allow feedback to be gained and adjustments made before final decisions are made. Thus the grapevine can contribute to a more inclusive workplace.
Humans are social animals – we need to talk to others. Chat about others helps to strengthen our existing relationships. Besides entertainment value, gossiping can raise people’s self esteem – we feel more important by getting information first and by the interest it creates. When two people share a rumor or gossip it has the effect of putting them on a relatively equal footing, so it is rare to find people from different levels discussing rumors or gossiping with each other.
A significant extent of workplace gossip leads to some negative consequences:
Most rumors are concerned with common organizational changes such as possible mergers and acquisitions, new aspects of mergers and acquisition processes that are already under way, staff changes and job security, retrenchment plans and restructurings. Research conducted by DiFonzo & Bordia in 2000 with 74 experienced PR professionals in corporate positions and consultancies, suggested that about a third of rumors relate to personnel changes such as a senior executive leaving to join the opposition, about staff changes due to a shake-up in management, and about changes caused by a merger or acquisition. You can read more on this in my article on corporate communication responses needed for handling by abrupt executive departures
Another third of rumors were about job satisfaction and security. Job satisfaction rumors comprised word-of-mouth comments about unhappy employees, dissatisfaction with management and changed duties. Job security rumors were about lay-offs caused by downsizing, restructuring, plant closures etc.
The balance comprised speculation and gossip on a variety of topics. The research by DiFonzo & Bordia was conducted over two decades ago in 2000 with a small sample of participants. Some of the conclusions reached then may vary now.
Communicators can expect to encounter harmful rumors on the organizational grapevine quite often – about once a week on average, according to the above DiFonzo & Bordia research in 2000. Although not always harmful, rumors can reduce employee productivity, tarnish personal reputations and interfere with organizational communication. Rumors obviously abound during restructuring and retrenchment processes – when employees are nervous about their jobs they waste time talking about the rumors and their work rate falls.
Rumors flow constantly through every organization. “Have you heard the latest about…?” is commonly heard – and difficult for managers to deal with. Denying a rumor can give it credibility. Asking how it got started can ensure it spreads. Ignoring it risks allowing it to spiral out of control. Rumors about issues central to the future of the organization – takeovers, reorganizations, major managerial changes – can be an enormous distraction to employees.
What can be done? Former World Bank executive, business writer and author, Stephen Denning, suggests in a Harvard Business Review article that one good response in the immediate workplace is to harness the energy of the grapevine to defuse the rumor, using a story with a slightly humorous theme to convince listeners the gossip is either untrue or unreasonable. This kind of story highlights the inconsistency between the rumor and reality. You could also use gentle sarcasm to mock the rumor, the rumor’s author, or even yourself, in an effort to undermine the rumor’s power. However, be mindful that humor can backfire. People won’t respect you if your ‘humor’ is inappropriate, especially if the rumor turns out to be true, or mostly true. If that’s the case, there is little you can do but admit the truthful parts of the rumor, put it in perspective, and move on.
Six actions can be taken to tackle internal rumors, according to PR consultant Michael Hartland
Plans can be activated to prevent and reduce rumors, although rumors are relatively difficult to grapple with. An early warning system is a good way to reduce harmful rumors that are already circulating: staff in various locations can be informally appointed to monitor and report on early indications of rumors.
Preventative measures should include keeping staff regularly, fully and honestly informed of planned changes through a range of tailored formal and informal communication avenues such as emails and face-to-face meetings at various levels. Sometimes external stakeholders also need to receive timely messages to prevent a harmful rumor from spreading outside the organization.
People’s attention to and belief in a rumor will be affected by several variables involved in a denial, according to DiFonzo & Bordia’s research in 2005
The researchers concluded that high-quality denials reduce belief and anxiety associated with a rumor. Denials that rebut a rumor with convincing arguments should reduce belief in the rumor. Also, denials should provide directions on how to avoid the threatening situation or context alleged in a rumor. This will reduce anxiety and instill a sense of control over threatening and uncertain events. [All commonsense, really.]
Communication pros could prepare messages on the issues for management and supervisors to communicate in response. The messages should be tailored to specific audiences and need to be couched in the everyday language of the workplace, not in ‘management-speak’. In addition, a rumor ‘hotline’ – an internal telephone service or email address – could be set up to receive questions from employees about rumors in circulation. Text messages and broadcast emails to employees could be put in place.
False rumors should be refuted by an authoritative source. For instance, the chief financial officer should deal with a rumor about cash flow, and the human resources manager should deal with a rumor about pay changes. Sometimes a respected external source is best placed to authoritatively refute a rumor. The refutations should be clear, strong, consistent and truthful. No response or a ‘no comment’ response only add to further damaging speculation, so avoid this as much as possible.
The important thing is to maintain a good communication flow using several channels to convey the same message. It is helpful even to say that information is incomplete or discussions are in progress, and staff will be informed as soon as there is progress information available. It is futile to wait until everything is in place before issuing a statement because staff quickly notice unusual happenings and they know when unusual requests for information are received from head office. They will speculate about it – usually with some paranoia.
US research showed that a reasonably effective approach to minimizing rumors is to provide structuring to uncertainty. For instance, by explaining the procedures by which planned changes will be decided, the employer gives employees the comfort of knowing the broad guidelines that will be used. Similarly, telling them when an official announcement will be made at least provides them with some structure or stability of intent, even if the content of the announcement is not known to them.
Management should avoid playing word games with the truth or parts of the truth in order to minimize bad news. Their credibility will suffer massively if they try this – because the truth will inevitably emerge at some stage. During the course of research for their book, Why should anyone be led by you?, on creating the authentic organization, Professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones “saw over and over that the most admired organizations don’t do ‘spin.'” They say the old practice of ‘covering up’ no longer works. “Spin backfires.” The breadth and depth of information available today has created a more knowledgeable public, less easily swayed by cover ups and misinformation, except in the case of confirmation bias, mentioned above.
External rumors are generally about the stock market (if the organization is a public company), product or service quality, CEO and/or organizational reputation. External rumors are those of interest to customers, news media and their audiences, social media users, shareholders, or the general public (ie, people who purchase/use or potentially purchase/use the organization’s products/services/shares).
The originally secret US wartime ‘How To’ manual on spreading rumors described an effective rumor as being self-propelled,’ described 5 characteristics of widespread external rumors:
Typical false rumors about small and large businesses, such as: “This stock is going to rocket – they’ve struck oil” and “I heard that restaurant serves cat as chicken.”
The impact of false rumors can seriously damage a company’s health. External rumors have damaged corporate reputations and caused company share prices to fall. The most precious asset a company has is its brand value and reputation. Corporate reputations accounted for 35.3% of total capitalization of the world’s top 15 stock market indices, representing $16.77 trillion in shareholder value, according to a report for the 12 months to 31 March 2019. Often a corporate reputation will exceed in value the tangible assets of a firm, especially big public companies. For instance, the reputation capital of some top companies is more than half of their market value, including Apple, Disney, Alphabet (parent company of Google), ExxonMobil, Unilever and Shell.
Other impacts can include:
Read my article on the crucial importance of stakeholders in countering false rumors.
The advent of social media has transformed the speed and nature of rumors. As humorist Douglas Adams (1952-2001), author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” Rumors spread extremely fast in social networks. The news, especially bad news, in a rumor can spread to a broad audience very quickly.
Social media rumors can create havoc in business. For instance, false rumors can affect share prices, eg a false tweet in 2016 claiming Barack Obama was injured in an explosion caused $130 billion in stock value to be wiped out on US stock exchanges.
In a famous 2018 project, US researchers showed how false rumors spread on Twitter, by analyzing a dataset of Twitter rumor ‘cascades’ recorded from 2006 to 2017. They examined 126,000 rumors tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. They found that false news stories were 70% more likely than true stories to be retweeted. The research team found that it took truthful rumors about 6 times as long as falsehoods to reach 1,500 people, as shown in Figure 2F below. Untrue stories also had more staying power, carrying onto to more ‘cascades,’ or unbroken retweet chains. Reporting the findings, Maggie Fox from NBC News, interviewed Sinan Aral, who headed the research team. He said:
“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,” [as in Figure 1F below.]
The researchers checked for bots and found they were not spreading most of the falsehoods. It was mainly ‘real people’ – ordinary people. Those with many followers were not often the source of some of the most popular untrue viral posts, Fox reported.
“We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” said Aral.
Above left, Figure 2F: Graph of the number of minutes it took for true and false rumor cascades to reach unique [separate] Twitter users in the period 2006-2017. The green line represents true rumors, and the red line represents false rumors.
Above right, Figure 1F: Diagram [histogram] of the total number of rumor cascades in the data across the 7 most frequent topical categories, 2006-2017.
Note: A rumor cascade begins on Twitter when a user makes a claim about a topic in a tweet, which could include written text, photos, or links to articles online. When others spread the rumor by retweeting it in an unbroken retweet chain, it is called a cascade. The researchers sampled all rumor cascades investigated by six independent fact-checking organizations (snopes.com, politifact.com, factcheck.org, truthorfiction.com, hoax-slayer.com, and urban legends.about.com) by analyzing the title, body, and verdict (true, false, or mixed) of each rumor investigation reported on their websites and automatically collecting the cascades corresponding to those rumors on Twitter. It would be interesting to read any similar research undertaken for Facebook posts and text messages.
Propaganda and disinformation campaigns
The sources of false rumors aren’t discussed in the above Twitter research, and also are not the subject of this article. Some countries use social media to engage in propaganda and disinformation campaigns – mainly against the United States. Russia and China have been actively doing this, seizing on the problems caused in the US coronavirus responses. The New York Times reported on this in an article on 28 March 2020, updated on 10 April 2020, “As Virus Spreads, China and Russia See Openings for Disinformation: The two powers amplify discredited conspiracy theories and sow division as they look to undermine the United States.”
Another NYT article on 13-14 April 2020 discussed “Putin’s Long War Against American Science,” reporting: “Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within. [Useful reality checks!]
Below are some lessons, suggestions and prompts, learned the hard way, by companies that got it wrong. These are largely based on a 2014 article by Andrew Hiles:
Plan for the worst and hope for the best
Respond as soon as possible
Get on and stay on message
Minimize scope for error and misunderstanding
Protect your market and share value
Call in the cavalry
Get it out, get it over, move on
Be cautious about lawsuits
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