The Business of rumours

By Ravi Bamunusinghe
The people are either receptive or vulnerable to rumours on a daily basis depending on the scale of the rumor and the momentum it gathers. Rumours can be ‘mundane’ or ‘grand’. People hear mundane rumours on day to day life from their neighbourhood, office or any other socially interactive situations. The grand rumours are significant for its believability, momentum and interest it generates among a larger community.

The rumours become a topic of interest when it surpasses any advertising budget in terms of reach and frequency where advertising being measured. Hence the question is whether rumours have the basics to be a module of communication. If so, it is worth to explore rumours or word of mouth for its positive and negative connotations.

Even though there are recent rumours to discuss, in order to explore the concept of rumours it is appropriate to mention two of the grand rumours in the recent past. The rumor of the ‘Budu Ras” the aura of rays emanating from Buddha statues, and the death of LTTE leader Prabahkaran in the Tsunami are an indication of scale and momentum of a rumor. Whether one believed these two messages or not is subjective and what is important is to understand the process of believing and disbelieving to find out possible use of rumours for Marketing Communication activities.

How have anthropologists and sociologists defined rumours? Allport and Postman explain a rumor as “a specific (or topical) proposition for belief, passed along from person to person, usually by word of mouth, without secure evidence being present”. Peterson and Gist refer to a rumor as “an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object or issue of public concern”. Finally Knapp sees rumours as “a proposition for belief of topical reference disseminated without official verification”. The key words in these definitions are: A proposition, Belief, Person to Person, Public Concern, Insecure Evidence, Unverified and Unofficial. Therefore any message that we receive has some of these aspects which can be considered as a rumor.

The characteristics of rumours are intriguing as in most rumours it is first heard from a distant person who had actually experienced or heard the incident of public concern. The degree of believability occurs on the receiver’s frame of mind on the issue and source credibility. If the receiver’s sentiments are congruent to the proposition it will have possibilities to generate momentum. Interestingly, in most situations there is a possibility to add on the receiver’s feelings and imaginations on the issue either subconsciously or intentionally. This may add flavor to the rumor.

Then the question arises whether people generally verify information they receive. In most situations it is not verified as they have the confidence with the source, such as the newspaper or a trusted friend. Hence there is a possibility to receive the message by people who can be vulnerable to the imagination of the intermediary before they relay the story to a third party.

During World War II, the recommendations made by Knapp to discourage spreading of rumours are interesting. They also reveal difficulties that one could face due to rumours. The summary of the recommendations are:
1) Public must have total confidence in the official media (press, radio and television) so as not to be tempted to seek information elsewhere.
2) Public must have total faith in its leaders and confidence that its government is doing its best to solve problems brought on by crisis and war. Everything possible must be done to avoid distrust and suspicion which only serve to feed the rumours.
3) When something happens, a maximum quantity of information should be disseminated as quickly as possible. Rumours arise from spontaneous questions the public asks itself to which no answers are provided. They satisfy the need to understand events, in the cases where events do not speak for themselves.
4) Broadcasting information provide no guarantee that it will be received; one must thus ensure that official reports be heard by everyone. Pockets of ignorance must be eliminated.
5) As boredom give rise to interest in the slightest little rumours that dispel monotony, it is important to secure the population from idleness through work and the organization of free time.

In the current day context this could be familiar to some. However, since World War II the evolvement of the societies and technology is such that the management of the rumours may not be as straightforward. The possible reasons are:
1) Societies are bombarded with alternate sources of information
2) Alternative sources are seemingly believable
3) Lack of credibility of state communication due to perceived bias
4) Opportunities to chat in state and corporate management systems
5) The receptiveness to entertainment value (if any) of the rumor

Therefore, the question arises how the rumours have the power to gain momentum. An American Sociologist Shibutani explains that “the rumours are improvised news resulting from a process of collective discussion” and introduced a simple formula as Rumours are product of Importance and Ambiguity. R = Importance X Ambiguity

This explains the unprecedented momentum gathered on rumor of ‘Budu Ras’ and ‘Prabhakaran’. These rumours were important to us both spiritually and/or socially. The information received is ambiguous with the inadequacy of verification. The process had enough opportunities to collective discussions which were fuel to fire.

Then the question comes how rumours stop its momentum? Kapferer is of the view that “when someone is convinced by a message recounted by a friend or consequence, he believes it is information that he has at hand. Should he be seized by doubt, however, he will quickly qualify the same message as a rumor. There lies the paradox. Once a rumor is qualified as a ‘rumor’ by the public, it stops spreading. On the other hand, when the public does not recognise it as such, it can go on spreading”. Therefore, the same rumor can be true to one and false to the other and accordingly spread through the community. In most situations the public may not be able to distinguish truth from false. Hence each rumor has its own target audience.

The affected institutions or parties naturally tend to control spreading of the rumor as it can have adverse effect on credibility that could lead to financial and/or image loss. Some of the following methods are adopted by affected parties to mitigate the impact of the rumor:
1) Train the staff of the institute to respond to inquiries with a carefully worded message. If necessary, increase the number of telephone lines to handle the queries
2) Post an official mail, countering the rumor to all the stakeholders
3) Use communication channels to inform the true picture of the affected institute
4) Seek the assistance of the Police to track the cause or originator of the rumor
5) Generate a counter rumor
According to Kapferer, the denials have a number of handicaps as to their value on the information supply and demand:
1) They do not constitute hot news. They are expected to. Someone who is attacked says (or someone else says for him), “I am innocent. ”What constitutes real, surprising, unexpected news is when the accused says, “Yes. I did”.
2) Denials are cold, almost kill-joy information. They defuse the imagination, plunging us back into the banally of reality. Denials suppress stories of whose truth we are altogether not sure, but which are in any case have an effect when they are told, spurring on a wide variety of commentaries and passionate elaborations.

Hence handling rumours by the affected parties is a challenge. The aspects that need to consider is the ambiguous nature (Shibutani) of a rumor, the perceived lack of credibility of the official statement and the limitations in denials. Since counter rumours could lead to further ambiguity through possible confusion, a way to handle the rumor is by inducing sense into the recipient of the rumor as rumor looses its power if doubt is greater. Therefore, the rumor is not a rumor if people perceived it as a rumor. How could one achieve this?

Controlled collective discussions are a way to handle rumours. The controlling aspect of the collective discussion is three-fold:
1) After careful analysis of the nature of the rumor, initiate a series of discussions in possible localities of the origin of the rumor.
2) Identify the target audience(s) and select possible Informal Opinion Leaders (IOLs) from the community. Since opinion leaders are difficult to identify, the selection is based on assumptions. One good measure is selecting from the community those who consent to attend collective discussions.
3) The discussion to be moderated with an intention of introducing the rationale of the rumor at the receiving stage. Hence, the moderator to have a well thought out series of questions in order to probe. That breaks the direct reaction to the rumor.

The proposed method is appropriate as it is using the same mechanism of rumours, which are collective discussions. Further, it uses the opinion leaders from the same community who could trigger the rumor had they not attended the collective discussions. However, the key difference of Controlled Collective Discussions (CCDs) is its two-way communication capability. The CCDs can be conducted in such a manner that the experience of each discussion will shape the subsequent discussions (Grounded Theory). In the process, there is a possibility to get close to the nucleus of the rumor that could provide insights to counter the current rumor constructively and possible avoidance of future rumours. Further, the identification of IOLs is beneficial to be used as brand ambassador of your brand, political party or cause.

A concluding thought is, should we conduct CCDs on the rumours of ‘Budu Ras’ and ‘Prabhakaran’? It is subject to what the reader expects. This depicts the robustness of rumours and limitations that one could face in countering rumours.

Writer is a Social and Market Researcher who has an interest in alternative communication methods. The writer is crediting Kapferer in the preparation of the article.