The Epidemic Power of Rumor
Cell Phones and Internet Speed Process
We all like to share important information with those that we care about. Especially if we think we have some piece of information that they anxiously await.
This is impulse (however innocent) is also at the genesis of rumors.
Derek Rose, a reporter for the New York Daily News gives his starkly honest account about the euphoria that led to most media erroneously reporting the fate of 13 miners at the Sago Mine in Philippi, W.Va.
In the book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell outlines the power of rumor with the example of Paul Revere on his fateful ride in 1776 warning the countryside with his famous quote, “The British are coming.” The colonists took dramatic action, beating back the British and making the American Revolution possible.
Why was Revere so successful in convincing the colonists that the Bristish were indeed coming?
His credibility. And so it was at the Sago Mine.
According to an article by Chris Maag for Time Magazine:
The initial communications breakdown appeared to occur when a rescue team found the trapped miners at around 11:45 p.m., Tuesday, and informed workers at a clean-air station of their discovery. What they said remains unknown but they were using a scratchy radio connection and speaking through bulky oxygen masks, which may have resulted in a misunderstanding. The message from the clean-air station to a command center on the surface was loud and clear, however: “12 are alive.” The announcement sparked a celebration, and Ben Hatfield, CEO of ICG, gave a bear hug to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin. “We all felt an incredible joy,” Hatfield said.
Someone overheard this celebration and cell phone calls (official or unofficial) were made to the relatives waiting at the Sago Baptist Church. The happy news spread like wildfire across the cell phones of people in the town.
In this small mining town, everyone knew everyone else. And while no one has definitively reported who made that first cell phone call, according to Gladwell’s principle of word-of-mouth, it probably came though known and trusted channels.
Most rumors do.
There was no official statement from the company. Most reporters didn’t check for one. It was near midnight and newspapers were going to press. In Rose’s post he says:
I don’t believe in waiting until “the authorities,” give my stories some magic stamp of approval by saying “this story has been Officially Confirmed.” That just makes the media another government cog.
He also mentions the misinformation fed out by government sources during Katrina.
Christian Giggenbach, of the Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia, sums up the problems on all sides well, but he doesn’t account for the strong pull of word-of-mouth.
Rumor is powerful and word-of-mouth has an immense power to either aid or destroy.
As communication practioners, we must account for this in our communication strategies. And International Coal Group (ICG) didn’t step up against public sentiment to squash the rumor once they found it was false only 30 minutes later.
Ben Hatfield, CEO of ICG was quoted in the Time article saying:
“If I had to do it over again, I would have gone to the church and told them we had conflicting information.”
Instead he asked state troopers to inform the clergy at the church to tell the families that there were now conflicting reports. The information didn’t trickle down to the families for three hours.
And why would it? The celebration that had already started and spread to the entire town put massive social pressure on everyone involved. The bad news, delivered through indirect, and less trusted, channels, took longer to “catch” than the miraculous news that everyone had hoped would come.
IGC can be faulted for its efforts to directly communicate with families in a timely manner.
We should learn from Hatfield’s missteps. The company has apologized and offered financial assistance, but this hasn't dulled the pain.
In my post last week I said that the ICG had an inadequate crisis plan, and with the new social forces we must contend with, all of our crisis plans may be out-of-date.
Aside: West Virginia Wireless is Donate A Phone Used Cell Phone Drive to raise funds for the Sago Mine Disaster Fund. Phones will be taken through February 6, 2006.
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