This summary is provided by the IPR Digital Media Research Center.

This study examined the different types of online rumors (rumors with fact-based claims and subjective claims), influence individuals’ attribution of organizational crisis responsibility, and attitudes toward an organization during a period of crisis uncertainty. The results showed that people tend to believe fact-based rumors more than rumors with subjective claims, leading to greater organizational blame and more negative attitudes toward the organization. The findings suggested that organizational responses to fact-based rumors might need to be viewed beyond a victim-type crisis.

This study conducted a three-group experiment (rumor type: fact-based rumors vs. subjective rumors vs. no rumor). All participants (n = 366) completed an online survey questionnaire that began with a pre-test measurement of personal involvement with the issue of food poisoning. They were then asked to read the same news article informing them of the crisis scenario and were randomly distributed to one of the three conditions regarding the crisis. Following that, the same post-test questionnaire was administered to measure the key variables.

Key Findings

  • Fact-based online rumors result in greater believability of the rumor as compared to rumors with subjective claims.
  • Believability of online rumors lead to greater attribution of organizational responsibility.
  • Believability of online rumors fully mediates the effect of rumor type on attribution of organizational crisis responsibility.
  • Attribution of organizational crisis responsibility leads to more negative attitudes toward the organization.
  • Individual personal involvement with a crisis issue is positively related to attribution of organizational crisis responsibility and negatively related to attitude toward organization.

Implications for Practice

  • In the immediate aftermath of a crisis when online rumors are posted, people adopt a more rational approach when deciding to believe negative rumors about an organization and whether to blame to the organization based on the rumors.
  • People’s tendency to believe online rumors during a period of crisis uncertainty is largely a rational process that is dependent on the veracity and objectivity of the claims made in the rumor. People tend not to give credit to online rumors that are void of informational and factual claims.
  • Before treating all online rumors as a victim-type crisis, Crisis managers should first be privy to the believability of negative rumors that make such fact-based claims. If the online rumor is fact-based, then from the audience perspective, the crisis could possibly be seen as preventable and would thus require greater justification from the organization than simply denying the truthfulness of the rumor.
  • Online rumor response decisions can be largely dependent on whether the cause for the crisis is known or not. When such critical information is not shared, crisis response strategies (i.e., instructing information, adjusting information) are theoretically more effective in lowering the organizational blame level than reputation management strategies (e.g., denial, diminish).

Nekmat, E., & Kong, D. (2019). Effects of online rumors on attribution of crisis responsibility and attitude toward organization during crisis uncertainty. Journal of Public Relations Research, 31(5-6), 133-151.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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