Monday, September 1, 2008

Combating Rumors in Social Media: Sarah Palin and Babygate

Update: Well, that was quick. By the time I posted this article about rumor control in Social Media, the McCain/Palin campaign had already acted to control the rumor in question. I had hoped we might learn a bit more about rumor response and management in Social Media by monitoring how this high-profile situation developed, but it seems today's announcement that Bristol Palin is pregnant puts an end to the rumors launched by Daily Kos.

As noted in my post, fighting rumors with facts is an obvious way to overcome erroneous gossip, and this is exactly what the Alaskan governor did. In fact, the goal of the announcement was specifically to combat the misinformation; according to the International Herald Tribune, "McCain aides said the announcement about the pregnancy of Palin's daughter, Bristol, was aimed at rebutting Internet rumors that Palin's own youngest son, born in April, was actually the daughter's."

While an hour or two made parts of my original post dated, I hope you'll find the rest of it informative. What follows is my original post about the actions a brand or company may take when lies or errors start spreading in Social Networks.

Original Post: I've often written on this blog about how Social Media imparts consumers with a bit more control and can permit them to shame companies for actions that may fail to live up to their service promises or brand. My examples to date (such as Wal-Mart's Debbie Shank lawsuit and the Comcast sleeping technician) may have been of arguable importance or relevance but were at least factual: Wal-Mart did sue a badly injured employee to recover medical costs and a Comcast technician did fall asleep in a consumer's home.

But what about false rumors? What can a brand do when incorrect news is disseminated through social networks? We'll get some insight into this by observing the Republican response to rumors about VP candidate Sarah Palin and a situation some are calling "Babygate."

(Note: I don't know whether the Palin rumors are true or false, but they strike me as highly improbable. Rather than get into politics, I'd prefer to approach this case-study-in-the-making from the standpoint of a marketer monitoring unique situations in the early days of Social Media and learning from others' experiences. My goal isn't to promote either the rumors or the response but to suggest that this high-profile situation provides an opportunity for knowledge and insight.)

Since I am largely uninterested in the rumors themselves, I won't delve into them other than to say a liberal blogger, DailyKos, has compiled hints and gossip that he believes suggests Sarah Palin's youngest child is really her daughter's child. The litany of innuendo includes photos of Sarah Palin during the pregnancy, photos of her daughter Bristol (who the blogger claims is the real mother), and details about Sarah's flight from Dallas to Alaska after her water broke.

In our highly charged political environment, it is probably no surprise that this rumor started spreading. First shared on DailyKos on August 30th, the tale traveled quickly. Two days later (during a long holiday weekend and with news media focused on a major storm bearing down on the Gulf coast), Google reported almost 12,000 hits for the search term "Palin Babygate." As of Monday morning, roughly one-quarter of the Tweets and three of the top four Digged links containing "Sarah Palin" were focused on the baby rumors. Over on YouTube, videos are starting to appear, including one that has been viewed over 22,000 times in the first 24 hours following its upload. No mainstream media has yet reported on the gossip, but you'd expect there's a rush to either confirm or deny the stories at this time.

So, what should the Republican party do? "Lawyering up" is not out of the question, but intimidation is rarely a very good idea nor is it typically successful within Social Media. A cease and desist letter may put the fear of financial repercussions into the hearts of some bloggers, but in the widely distributed world of Social Media, once a rumor is released into the wild, it is impossible to contain. Plus, unleashing the lawyers will upset and anger friends and invigorate most foes.

The best defense against false rumors isn't the law; it's communication. Getting the word out--and getting it out fast--is key. While best practices aren't yet established in the Social Media world, here are some tips for rumor control online:
  • Wait until you're sure the rumors will be spread widely and are important: Don't wait until the falsehood is well known; take action it when it becomes evident the gossip will travel widely. Knowing when to wait versus when you've waited too long to respond is more art than science. If you act too soon, you can help spread the rumor and inadvertently give it credence. Act too slow, and you can lose the chance to get the truth to people. (Remember that bad news and innuendo will travel quicker than good news and truth.)

  • Don't respond (directly) when rumors are unimportant: For rumors that won't have a significant impact on brand perception but are still bothersome, it may be best to do nothing other than to seek positive associations. Rather than roll out the big guns to combat the negative gossip, you can overcome negative Word of Mouth with a strategy to inundate the bad news with good. Carefully selecting the right message--one that reflects the spreading gossip--and broadcasting that message can permit you to fight the rumors without directly addressing them. This is a tempting approach because it allows the brand to stay above the fray, but it cannot be successful in the face of consequential bad publicity spreading like wildfire through Social Networks.

  • Use the same channels: You should certainly work traditional PR channels to prevent lies from spreading, but don't be lured into thinking rumors can be suppressed merely because you prevent established news media from reporting. The interconnectivity of consumers is too great to rely on traditional PR crisis management; instead, use the same channels in which the rumors are being communicated. If YouTube videos are spreading deceptions, then get a video response on YouTube as quickly as possible. If a Facebook group is being used to disseminate misinformation, get the facts posted in the group (and then contact Facebook to remove the group.)

  • Solicit support from your network: Fighting rumors should not be a solo effort. Don't be afraid to recruit people in your network to assist. Arm them with the talking points and facts, let them know about your shared interests, and request their assistance to get the word out. Don't tell them what to do, but be sure they are made aware of the importance of broadcasting the truth and responding to misinformation.

  • Tailor your attitude for the channel: When faced with dishonesty or mistakes, it is hard to contain righteousness and indignation, but this is probably not the best attitude. In press releases, you should leave no question as to your commitment to fight the rumors, but anger and frustration have no place. When reaching out to friendly bloggers, treat them as independent allies and not as cogs in your PR machine. And when reaching out to combative bloggers, a mild approach is recommended: inform them they are wrong, offer the facts, state the actions you'd like them to take, and--without threatening--end by expressing the hope you can secure their commitment without additional recourse.

  • Use facts to fight falsehood: It goes without saying the best defense is a good offense. If you possess facts that prove the gossip is objectively incorrect, get that information out in every channel. Since rumors tend to get stripped of detail when passed from one person to the next, using facts allows you to fill the gaps in people's understanding. Links to objective third-party sources will be worth more than links to your own Web site.

  • Advertise: Advertising has traditionally been thought of as a means to fight only the most threatening of rumors, but online this tactic makes sense in just about every case. For example, search engine advertising provides an excellent and instantaneous channel to reach people as they are searching for information about a scandal. Your contextual ads can appear above and beside any search engine results containing lies and mistakes.

  • Launch a site: For very damaging rumors, launch a Web site with content singularly focused on changing the minds of visitors. With a careful link-building strategy that includes links from official brand and company sites and from friendly blogs and social networks, your site can attain great organic search engine relevance which can help increase traffic and disseminate appropriate information.

  • Watch for errors and lies on objective sites: Monitor your Wikipedia entry and other publicly-maintained sites to make sure information remains accurate. Remember that your actions may speak louder than your information; deleting an uncomplimentary reference on Wikipedia may appear overly defensive and could be viewed as censorship. In some cases, it may be best to edit such entries to tell your story rather than delete it and turn your actions into additional grist for the rumor mill.

  • But if there is any truth to the rumors... It is very important that if there is so much as a shred of truth to the rumors, this can and should have a profound impact on your response. Admitting which portion of the rumors are accurate is vitally important, since consumers who learn this themselves at a later date will be left with a lot less trust in you and your brand. If significant portions of the rumor are both truthful and not, lead with an apology, briefly explain but not excuse the situation, then move on to addressing the incorrect portions of the rumors.

So, how is the GOP doing in fighting the Palin rumors? As of now, they seem to be pursuing the "ignore it and it will go away" strategy. Perhaps they believe the Palin gossip will die by itself or that it is unimportant. The GOP may hope news from their convention will simply swamp the "Babygate" rumors. (This would be an example of allowing positive associations to combat the negative rumors, as noted above.)

In an election year and with the broad reach of negative gossip on blogs, I'd suggest a more proactive course of action. The McCain campaign could end up playing defense later because they didn't get assertive quickly, but time will tell. As of now, Palin's page on the McCain site contains only her official comments after being selected for the VP slot, and the McCain news page has not been updated in three days.

Interestingly, it appears the McCain campaign is using Google Adwords to try to fight the gossip. The following ad appears when one searches for "Sarah Palin" on Google:

Sarah Palin Rumors?

Get The Facts on Governor Sarah
Palin. John McCain's VP Choice!
The fact the link takes Web surfers to a page with no rumor control or information may be a mistake, since those who click on such an ad are obviously seeking something the McCain site is not providing. They could end up with the worst of all worlds: They'll pay for clicks that won't provide benefits while giving some credibility to the rumors; after all, the campaign is sufficiently aware of the rumors to buy an ad that references them, but the site gives the impression McCain and Palin are unable to fight the rumors with facts. Of course, with all this occurring over a holiday weekend and on the eve of the GOP convention, it could be that more substantial PR management is planned for early in the week.

Observing how this situation shapes up in the coming weeks will provide some key lessons for those of us tracking the changing Social Media landscape. This could become an excellent case study for how to combat lies and misinformation in Social Media--one way or the other.

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