As the world grows ever more connected and the threat of rumors causing significant damage to your brand’s reputation increases exponentially, those engaged in public relations and communications must also scramble to find a way to mitigate its effects. But given that human relations — whether online or in the real world, at the personal or corporate levels — will always be prone to misunderstandings that arise easily and inadvertently even during the best of times, this task will always be easier said than done. Throw in the elements of malice and deliberate misinformation and you get the perfect brew for the birth and spread of nasty rumors.
But unknown to many communications and public relations practitioners, there is actually a decades-old mathematical formula that explains the spread of rumors and provides an empirical system to prevent it. It is called the “Allport and Postman Model of Rumor Dynamics” and is expressed as: R ~ I x A, where “R” is the reach, intensity, duration, and reliance on a rumor, “I” is the importance of the rumor to the hearer or reader, and “A” is the level of ambiguity or uncertainty surrounding the rumor.
In simple terms, the likelihood that a rumor will spread and what impact it will have depends on two multiplicative factors: how important it is to the audience and how thoroughly it was explained by the subject of the rumor.
Say for example we assign the value of “10” for those stories that people consider as being significant (i.e. you are selling a contaminated product, your stocks are about to lose half its value, the lead singer in your favorite band has died). Now let’s put the same value to responses that are less than forthcoming (i.e. no comment, we do not have any information to release at the moment, I would like to take the fifth on that). Multiply both and you get 100, the highest possible value for the spread and intensity of a rumor.
But the good news is, if you want to prevent or minimize the impact of rumors to your company, brand, or person, all you really have to do is tweak any one of the two elements and you can significantly reduce the risks.
For communications and public relations practitioners, this means being as clear and direct with your explanations to the public as possible, especially when their safety and security are concerned. If you can reduce the ambiguity factor to zero, that automatically kills all chances of the rumor spreading no matter how scary it is to begin with (ten multiplied by zero is zero).