Getting a grip on gossip: WFU research warns ignoring internet rumors can cost companies

Llewellyn and ChesnerAnyone with an e-mail account has seen them in their inbox: forwarded e-mail messages falsely warning about the danger of a certain product or promising bogus merchandise from a retailer. Such rumors have come to be known as Internet “urban legends.” They can be entertaining to the casual reader, but new research at Wake Forest University suggests they can also be costly-if not handled correctly by the companies targeted in the message.

Wake Forest graduate Connie Chesner and urban legend expert John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest, used these types of rumors to illustrate many businesses’ lack of basic electronic customer service. The paper, “Handling Hypertext Hoaxes: Organizational Response Strategies for Internet Rumors,” reveals that few-if any-companies have a strategy to combat potentially harmful Internet rumors. It outlines specific response strategies that can save a business’ reputation and resources.

“A lot of companies aren’t paying attention to their electronic front door,” said Llewellyn, Chesner’s mentor on the study. “Consumers are making decisions about whether they will avoid this company for the rest of their life. If their questions don’t get answered, that will make their decision.”

Chesner conducted a comprehensive review of currently available rumor research and studied 48 different Internet rumors affecting major companies like Gap, Inc. and Mars, Inc. Rumors ranged from promised discounts to warnings that a particular Web company could destroy a computer’s hard drive. Some rumors affected the companies directly, others indirectly. Chesner named a third group “implied endorser,” when a company is falsely associated with the rumor to provide credibility.

She then tried to contact the companies through their on-line feedback links and discovered several roadblocks along the way. In each contact, she identified herself as a researcher and requested more information about currently circulating rumors. Of the more than 40 companies to which she sent e-mails, only two responded with the information she requested. A third company replied, but with no information about the rumor.

“I noticed a pattern that nobody wanted to talk about this,” said Chesner, who graduated from Wake Forest in May with a master’s degree in communication. “The fact that I got such a limited response from the companies was surprisingly eye-opening.”

Further investigation through a specialized template, letters to companies, urban legend archiving sites and media coverage of key rumors revealed that not only do companies lose customers by not responding to rumors, they suffer financial losses, too. Chesner found one Internet rumor about a baby food company that resulted in more than one million letters and 80,000 phone calls to the company. Another popularly circulated e-mail myth sparked more than 500 e-mails to a company in one day, clogging the company’s e-mail system. Yet another rumor about bacteria in produce cost the banana industry more than $30 million when many consumers temporarily stopped buying the fruit. None of them were valid, Chesner said.

“There is a public curiosity out there, and these Internet myths are answering what the companies aren’t,” Chesner said. “Rumors fill in information gaps and the gaps are being filled with inaccurate information that is ultimately hurting the company.”

Based on her research, Chesner recommends specific company response strategies. She outlines a template for response letters that address the rumor. Its key elements include a statement acknowledging the rumor as false, while respecting the consumer who believes it. Choice of wording, particularly adjectives describing the rumor, is of utmost importance in that balance. She suggests using phrases like “alarming” or “deceptive” e-mail, and “appalling” or “fraudulent” claims. Chesner said the company should also give a summary of the e-mail in the letter, emphasize that it is untrue, provide practical reasons why the e-mail is false, refer consumers to other related sources of information and offer a company contact for further questions.

“Not only are rumors enduring, but if they aren’t stopped, history has shown that they will re-emerge and include more victims as they grow,” Chesner said. “Some rumors have had a lifespan of more than 20 years. That is why it is important for companies to be proactive in communicating with the consumer.”

Chesner sent summaries of her findings to the two companies that responded to her inquiry for cooperation. Her research is copyrighted and she is currently looking for publishers interested in developing her academic research into a practical guide.

“This research is groundbreaking in many ways,” Llewellyn said. “The damage that an Internet myth can cause to a company has been proven, yet most companies don’t do anything to communicate the truth to the consumer. This research has created the scoreboard for measuring the impact, even for those who don’t want to know the score.”

Categories: Faculty, Research, School of Business