Damage Control That Causes More Damage


Usually marketers concentrate on getting their own message out, but sometimes it seems necessary to respond to the claims of others. The most annoying of these situations are claims or rumors that are totally false. What should one do if, for example, an activist group makes false allegations that your product causes cancer or is made from baby seals? One’s first reaction would be to start a major effort to set the record straight – call a press conference, schedule interviews, and buy ad space . Oddly, those steps may be the worst reaction to the charges, and the reason is the way people’s brains work.

As described by Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post in Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach, efforts to negate incorrect statements can actually cause people to believe that the false statement is true.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either “true” or “false.” Among those identified as false were statements such as “The side effects are worse than the flu” and “Only older people need flu vaccine.”

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual. Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

What does this mean for marketers and public relations specialists? In general, it’s better to avoid repeating a false rumor or scurrilous attack in order to deny it. While at times this may be unavoidable, in many cases the best approach to damage control may be to emphasize the positive. Instead of repeating a rumor that your noise-cancelling headphones cause brain cancer, emphasize their safety and the extensive testing that confirms that. Avoid interview situations that could result in the rumor being repeated and requiring a denial. Never run an ad that says, “You may have heard a rumor that our headphones cause brain cancer. This is false.”

Obviously, if a rumor or or other attack gains so much traction that it’s major news, denial will be necessary. In general, though, the neuromarketing approach should be to avoid repeating false facts whenever possible, because doing so – even in the context of correcting them – may actually cause people to believe them.

As an alternative, though, a truly massive campaign can have more powerful effects than it deserves. In an NPR interview, the author of the Washington Post article, Shankar Vedantam, notes,

When you have people who are systematically trying to manipulate you, spread propaganda, for instance, and they repeat the same information over and over again, the fact that we are not very good at remembering where we heard a particular piece of information, we tend to believe that we have heard the information from multiple independent sources and therefore it must be true, rather than from the same untrustworthy source over and over again.

So, to sum up, the brain-oriented approach is to avoid describe false allegations whenever possible, and repeat your own message as often as you can.

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