False Rumors About Your Company: What Do You Do?

Let's say you're surfing the Internet one day, and come across a rumor about your company that you know to be false. What do you do?

Many people would instinctively choose to defend their firm, setting the record straight by telling their company's side of the story. According to three psychologists cited in a recent Economist article, however, that instinct may be dead wrong.

The Economist piece profiles a page set up by Coca-Cola to rebut a variety of rumors about the firm. Among them: that the company is anti-Muslim; that boycotting it makes a statement against America; that terrorists have contaminated the company's flagship product.

The psychologists cited in the Economist piece offer advice that, to some, will seem counterintuitive: rather than directly rebutting the rumors, the company should instead "put out a stream of positive messages about itself […] This deprives myths of oxygen and also nudges people to doubt nasty things they may hear about the company in question."

The alternative—to do as Coca-Cola has done—is to propagate the rumors simply by repeating them, even if only to rebut them. That, claims the piece, effectively creates a game of Telephone that you can't win:

"As information is passed around, important qualifiers are lost. A rumor may start as 'I’m not sure if this is true, but I heard that…' Then it evolves into: 'I heard that…' Finally it becomes: 'Did you know that…?' Even when no one intends to spread falsehoods, they spread."

Obviously there are questions of degree at work here: the appropriate response from a company will depend entirely on the nature of the rumor. Looking at the three mentioned above, for example, the most important one to quash is surely the allegation that the firm's product is tainted—that's something that will stop anyone from buying the product, regardless of their particular constituency.

For the other two, however, the advice of the psychologists may well prove to be the best option. Put simply, they don't stand up to any sort of rational analysis. Therefore, anyone willing to believe such rumors is not operating from a rational standpoint in the first place. That makes them unlikely to be swayed by a reasoned response, and significantly more likely to view any response simply as a wider part of the conspiracy they've bought into.

Faced with that reality, perhaps Coca-Cola would indeed be better served simply to highlight positive messages—with a specific focus on work it is doing in the Middle East, and outreach efforts within the Muslim community. That, at least, will give anyone seeking to defend the brand—and even those seeking to defame it—concrete examples to point to, as opposed to yet more rhetoric.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.