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The #1 secret PR tip: spread happy truths

Crisis communications professionals everywhere just had their world upended:  The Economist just may well have put you out of work by unleashing one of the most closely held secrets of the industry.

“Instead of denying false rumours, a company should put out a stream of positive messages about itself” wrote the reputable publication citing three academic researchers with reputable institutions.

Sheesh.  PRSA’s response to The Rise of the Image Man was all wrong.  I was clearly wrong.  I should quit my PR job and join the Army instead.  All we needed to do was start spreading happy thoughts. 

The Economist frames the issue this way:

“IF YOU Google the phrase “Middle East rumours”, the first link that pops up is not, as you might expect, a website propagating conspiracy theories. It is Coca-Cola’s website. For several years now the company has struggled to rebut ridiculous rumours about its products.

For example, some people believe that if you read Coke’s Arabic logo backwards, it says: “No Muhammad, No Mecca”. Others insist that the company is owned by Jews, or that it bankrolls Israel. These rumours are one reason why Coke does worse than Pepsi in Arab countries. Yet they are all false, as Coke’s website explains in painstaking detail.

Such rebuttals are unwise, argue Derek Rucker and David Dubois, of the Kellogg School of Management, and Zakary Tormala, of Stanford business school, three psychologists. By restating the rumours, Coke helps to propagate them. Its web page is a magnet for search engines. And people who read rebuttals tend to forget the denial and remember only the rumour, says Mr Rucker.”

The Coke rumors maybe true.  I spent a year in Iraq and drank a lot of Pepsi in funny metric-sized cans, but I think the ingredients of The Economist’s recommendation are all wrong, let alone the final elixir.

Being a magnet for search engines isn’t a bad thing!  People search for information and Coke’s information is first in search.  Being findable means they have a chance to contribute to the conversation, versus the alternative:  getting it second hand from an undergraduate student (the subject of the academic study).  

The latter would certainly happen if Coke didn’t address the issue directly, but rather spewed a stream of positive, motivational messages accented with flowery language and very pleasing press release quotes.   Maybe the rumors would just magically go away. 

The Economist’s story reminds me of that scene from Mars Attacks – see the video nearby.

Photo credit:  Flickr, Martin Whitmore

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  • Keith

    Frank – Great post with a terrific and witty perspective, as always. While The Economist is a great publication that rightly so is one of the most respected voices in the global business and public affairs community, its ability to take broad, wide-ranging topics and condense them down to the bare bones doesn't play so well with complex research studies, such as in this case.

    While it may be tempting to boil down the research that The Economist cites into a bite-size morsel of "spread happy truths" as you surmise the publication's approach, the reality is far more complex.

    Companies ignore false and potentially devastating tales at their peril. It would be quite a leap of faith to simply ignore published rumors in favor of espousing positive messages meant to avert the attention of savvy consumers and stakeholders from being exposed to misinformation and half truths easily found via a simple Web search.

    Now, I'm off to "spread happy truths" for the rest of the day …

  • Krista

    Wow, I never thought I'd have anything in common with evil Martians trying to wipe out the human existence!

    Great post, Frank– although I haven't read the entire Economist article, it sounds that they are making a considerable generalization based on one company's PR/communications strategy. I worked in pharma PR for a few years and still keep up with the biz, and I don't think I ever heard a client ask for a stream of "happy truths" ever. I doubt that was Coke's game either, but who knows what happens in their board rooms.

    While it would make it easier, I don't think PR can be boiled down to a broad stroke such as this. But then again, I do like the sound of it and may add "spread happy truths" to my resume as a skill set 😉

  • Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    @Keith and @Krista — I guess I don't contend the research. That is interesting when considered in isolation. But taking a study of rumors amid undergraduate students and saying it's worthy to draw generalized conclusions about global, corporate and Web communication is a gigantic quantum leap. A college campus is hardly reflective of the real world and we know for example that there are differences between on and offline communication. For example a charismatic speaker maybe influential in person, but has little influence online and vice versa. The conclusion also discounts variables such as the semi-anonymous nature of online communication and the impact of big budget corporate communications. I'm a believer in a psychological application in marketing ("Why we buy," buy Paco Underhill is a good example) but both Spock and Aristotle would probably call this conclusion illogical. Back to sharing happy things!

  • Christina Ing

    Interesting tie-in to Mars Attack!

  • Farida at Prism Media Services

    From a language and SEO perspective, I understand the risk involved in denying false rumors. In the book Don’t Think of An Elephant,’ linguist George Lakoff warns that simply negating something only serves to reinforce it – the most famous example being Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” or most recently, Christine O’ Donnell saying, “I am not a witch.” That said, silence often indicates guilt and not addressing a rumor directly by presenting the facts as soon as possible can prove to be extremely damaging for an organization, especially in the social media age, where information moves so rapidly and amplifies as it moves along. But the idea of sending out positive messages when rumors about you are flying around, reeks of spin!

  • Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Hi Farida, I think the point Lakoff, et al try to make is to avoid repeating the word. For example, if asked, "Are you a crook?" don't respond with "I'm not a crook," but instead offer, "I'm a honest person." Nixon's problem of course, had little do do with semantics: he was in fact, a crook. Regardless, like you I don't believe trying to cover up a smell with flowery language is sound advice. In fact, it's probably very harmful advice.

    Thanks for the comment! Happy Friday!

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