We go through phases in my work where we spend way too much time fighting rumors and accusations. It rarely seems to do much good. People believe all sorts of silly things, sometimes things that if true would violated the laws of physics, but they believe them. Attacking rumor with mere truth is sometimes worse than doing nothing. Our comments are taken as confirmations of the rumor. After all, the old saying goes that “where there is smoke, there is fire,” and many people seem to figure that strenuous denials indicate that something important has come out. “Fair” people will look at both sides with equanimity, thinking that the truth must be in the middle. It rarely is. If you see a discussion between someone who believes the world is flat and one who tells you it is round, they both do not have good arguments and you should not conclude that truth lies in the middle, maybe earth is shaped like a cough lozenge.
Human belief is a complicated system. I have come to understand that there are some arguments you cannot win, no matter how much truth you possess. The way to prevail is to run around them. Bring the weight of attention onto something else. Change the frame. These are all things smart persuaders do, yet we still get stuck in the denial game. Sometimes we have to play that game, but it should be low key. Put the facts out there, but don’t play on that unfair field. My personal favorite tactic is to get someone else to ridicule the opponent’s stand, but this is hard to do and can created backlash.
I read a good article about this recently in the Economist explaining that some researchers from Kellogg School of Journalism & at Stanford have come up with research that shows with some academic rigor what public affairs professionals know is a rougher and more intuitive fashion.
The researchers experimented by planting rumors among undergraduates. With each repetition, they found that skepticism diminished, increasing the chances that the students would believe them. So what do you do? The best thing to do is flood the zone with positive messages. This takes the fuel out of the rumor fire.
Early in my career, I read a book by Herb Schmertz, the head of PR at Mobile. It was called “Goodbye to the Low Profile.” As his title implies, Schmertz advocated a kick-ass relationship with critics. He felt that businesses were letting their adversaries get away with attacking them and it was not working for them. There were lots of rumors and innuendo spread about energy companies, then as now. Schmertz mentioned one dramatic example of countering disinformation, when he described how Mobile debunked the myth that energy companies had tankers full of oil just outside American harbors waiting for prices to rise. Mobile took journalists up in helicopters and challenged them find them. Of course, they couldn’t.
Schmertz never really solved the problem free riders. Everybody in the industry benefits when somebody takes on critics, but the firm that does the heavy work not only has to pay the expense of the counterattacks, but also makes itself a target for activists and is likely to bring in political pressure. Most firms opt to keep as quiet as possible and hope that the false charges don’t cost them too much. The idea of a “good news flood” addresses this. It doesn’t provide much of an opportunity to counter attack and it can be justified as image building or even advertising.
The thing I remember most about the book was the saying “Yes, we have no bananas.” Schmertz chose the words from an old and familiar song. (I remember it sung by Jimmy Durante, but evidently it was a big song by many.) The fact that I still remember it shows the usefulness of a memorable handle. That was one lesson I took. But the underlying explanation was also useful. The idea is that you always bridge from the negative to the positive. If you say, we don’t have any bananas; it is just a negative statement. “Yes, we have no bananas” says the same thing. But it brings a little positive levity. Nobody is fooled, but it takes the edge off.
The good news flood is a more effective and practical way to do this. It frustrates critics, since if done well it changes the game and marginalizes them. Sometimes they are honesty angry because they think you are not answering their questions, but nothing says you have to do that. There are always many ways to look at anything. Their way is only one and probably not the best. When I read more on the subject of persuasion, I found out that this was called reframing or redirecting. It is a potent tool, especially if you actually have good news to tell. You don’t have to take the frame you are handed and you should always test any frame for validity. Some questions cannot be answered satisfactorily as stated. The classic example is when you are asked to answer yes or no to the question, “Do you still beat your wife.” An even more pernicious formula is when you are asks something like, “Why do you hate [name the group]? There is no way you can bring facts to bear on those subjects. The questioner knows this. It is not honest. If you have to respond, talk over him/her to a wider audience.
Reframing is in order.