Blog presented by the Organizational Communication Research Center.
Good, old-fashioned talk between people about anything is natural. It is the greatest substance of human relationships, and it can be done orally or literately. In organizations, this “informal communication” serves vital purposes in keeping people engaged, energized, and enveloped well in their work and, especially, their relationships with one another. Such communication is largely productive and useful, but sometimes it can be counterproductive and distracting. At this point we are concerned with rumors (i.e., the focus is on events and information), including gossip (i.e., the focus is on people). (See Managerial Communication, p. 55.)
The “rumor mill” is always active, whether rumors are from within or from without. Not only that, but the rumor mill is highly efficient and can often produce depictions of what is going on that range from very erroneous to fairly accurate. Rumors are basic word-of-mouth communication. Plus, with the addition of digital communication technology, rumors can fly far further and faster than they ever could have before such technology was available. Word-of-mouth has been extended to word-of-device.
Let’s think about why rumors can start. People distain disorder, and when there is any degree of disorder, they want order restored, either the way things were or something measurably better. To do that, they may have a need to create a sense of order from what they know—whether the basis for disorder is made up of fact or fiction or both. (See the work of Kenneth Burke and the cycle of rebirth, also called “terms for order.” Also see this source or this source [chapter 7] for application of Burke to PR.)
In organizations, when uncertainty of any degree abounds about something important to people and they want to know what is going on, they will connect the dots between what they do know to what they think is true (e.g., assumptions, motives, conspiracies) to help make sense of it (see The Leadership Solution). Accuracy is assumed because of personal biases, networks of trusted peers, source credibility, and other factors. Interestingly, rumors tend to be based on certain truths while the rest of their content is not. The better the original sources with the most true information, the better the quality content and veracity of a rumor. (See The Watercooler Effect.)
Of all the things we professional communicators worry about and tend to, especially those working in internal PR, rumors may be the single-most difficult thing to handle. We loathe them because they cannot be controlled, as they begin from sources that somehow have just enough correct information that is tainted or twisted by speculation and questionable sense-making. Rumors often assert disorder in what is, otherwise, an orderly state of things. But what if we could have some ethical and purposeful influence on the rumor mill or grapevine?
From the scholarly to the practical, many sources provide us with insight about rumors in all respects. In a quick search for sources specifically on the subject of rumor (obviously not exhaustive for such a short piece as this blog post), three topic areas emerged that can help internal communicators in their understanding of rumor (and its cousin, gossip) and working with it (not to quash it) within an organization.
- The nature of rumor: Many sources investigate what the characteristics of rumor are and why they are so natural to human behaviors and potent, for better or for worse. Some interesting sources I found, in addition to The Watercooler Effect, are these about grapevine characteristics, rumor diffusion, rumors’ evasion of research, image and reputation impact, and personal responsibility.
- The spreadability of rumors: Pertinent, recent sources lean on network analysis to prescribe in-depth approaches to examining rumors’ dynamics among people. Applicable sources I found concern why rumors spread so well generally (source 1; source 2) and, in particular, spread easily in organizational social networks (source 1; source 2; source 3).
- How to capitalize on rumors: With the requisite insight gained through the two preceding categories of research, this one gives both theoretical and practical bases for making the rumor mill or grapevine work for the better of all. Indeed, sources on rumor spreadability may address how to work with rumors well. Useful sources in this specific vein address virality and spreading of facts, containing rumors strategically, credibility building, a recipe for managing rumors, applying social network analytics, and harnessing interest levels to manage rumor spread.
On balance, rumors are largely invented arguments for what may be the case, not what is the case. (In this way rumors are akin to fake news.) So when it comes to internal communication, PR professionals must consider all sides of a matter. From organizational change to crises to personnel matters, critical to internal PR work is establishing what the evidence is and how the evidence leads necessarily to particular conclusions and not others asserted in rumors. Additionally, dimensions of proprietary information, ethics, and law will pertain. Ideally, any debate spurred by a rumor should be winnable when source credibility is demonstrated and impeccable/impeachable content is advanced and granted.
We humans love order and prefer it—even expect it—because it is comforting when things are as they should be or we would like them to be. When things are ordered and good happens, all is well and everyone is pleased. But when anything is out of order (especially at large scales), it is attention-grabbing. Indeed, people tend to have an insatiable appetite for bad news, which fundamentally reveals disorder that makes things uncomfortable and spurs reporting of it. This appeal of disorder is key to a rumor’s lifecycle.
Note, however, that disorder does not have to be necessarily bad. Disorder that spurs markedly good news or sets matters aright or accrues major new benefits can and should gain attention, emotional attachment, and possibly action, if it is invited or inspired well. So a reasonable approach to rumors and gossip (for better and for worse) is to consider formally rumor mills’/grapevines’ fit in organizational communication, because they are always working and working very well; plus they could be used ethically, purposefully, and dialogically for the good of all.
Dr. Pete Smudde, APR, is professor of public relations and associate executive director of the School of Communication at Illinois State University. Follow him on Twitter @petesmudde.