News

Corporations combat insistent urban legends

Melissa Allison
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE - Ever get one of those e-mails purporting that Starbucks doesn't support U.S. soldiers, or that Coca-Cola has randomly chosen you for a cash prize? How about the tale that there's pig fat in McDonald's soft-serve ice cream?

Rumors fly fast and die hard in the world of e-mails and blogs, creating a dilemma for some corporations that face the never-ending task of setting the record straight.

Many have rumor-response pages on their Web sites and monitor what is said about them on sites like Snopes.com and Wikipedia.com. Despite those efforts, the same myths and untruths can circulate for years.

"Once it's on the Web, it's like taking the rods out of a reactor," said Chris Gidez, head of U.S. crisis management for the public-relations firm Hill & Knowlton. "Companies have to work harder to determine, `Do we need to worry about this?'"

Overreacting can call more attention to a rumor than it gets on its own, Gidez said. "I've had clients who wanted to respond to a problem with guns blazing, and I say, `Hold on a second. You might be telling a larger universe of people about a problem they didn't know existed.'"

The same medium that spreads rumors can be a gauge of how far and damaging they have become. Most big companies spend a chunk of time watching blogs, message boards and other sites for rumors and to see what customers, shareholders and employees are saying.

Companies that are subject to lots of rumors should respond to them important ones, said David Dunne, general manager of interactive solutions for the public-relations firm Edelman.

But software companies often use their Web sites to address every virus rumor, he said, because "it's important to tell the people who use their software not to worry."

More-traditional businesses have picked up the habit, too. Coca-Cola's Web site addresses so many rumors that they are categorized into separate myths and rumors pages - one for rumors from the Middle East, another for products and packaging, and a third addressing contests and promotions.

Right now, the most widespread rumor about Coca-Cola involves e-mails ostensibly from the company saying recipients have won cash in a drawing.

They first appeared several years ago, and Coke beat them down by using its Web site and by talking directly to employees and customers who had received them.

But the hoax resurfaced a couple of months ago, said spokeswoman Kerry Kerr.

For the Atlanta soft-drink company, it is more important to address rumors than to try to contain them, she said.

"When unfounded statements are repeated often enough," said spokeswoman Kerry Kerr, "they do start to cloud the truth, and people start to believe them."

In trying to kill a rumor, companies often enlist help from outside sources, including linking to other Web sites like Snopes.com, a well-regarded reference for sorting out myths and rumors.

That's one way Procter & Gamble squelched the rumor that its president had told a TV talk-show host that part of the Cincinnati company's profits go to the Church of Satan.

That tale started decades ago and escalated with the Internet, Procter & Gamble spokesman Doug Shelton said. He declined to say where the consumer products giant believes the rumor originated.

"One way to squelch a rumor is to refrain from refueling it when you believe it is largely behind you," Shelton said.

Sharing the truth is key, he said. Procter & Gamble's Web site links to several independent sources on the subject, including Snopes.com.

It also helped, he said, when talk shows issued statements saying that Procter & Gamble's president never appeared on their shows.

Starbucks went directly to the source of one of its most virulent rumors, which says the company doesn't support the war in Iraq or anyone in it.

That tale began with an e-mail from a Marine sergeant in 2003 or 2004, who wrote to friends that Starbucks had said so in a letter to Marines in Iraq who had asked for free coffee.

Several months later, the same sergeant wrote another e-mail apologizing and saying he was mistaken. His mea culpa is not nearly as widely circulated as the original e-mail, but it appears on the rumor-response page of Starbucks' Web site along with several links to Snopes.com and other sites refuting that Starbucks doesn't support U.S. soldiers.

Still, the rumor has not died.

"We get it every few weeks," said Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie O'Neil.

"Somebody will forward it to me and say, `Do you know about this?' Oh boy, do we."

Starbucks monitors blogs and other sites regularly, but it doesn't respond to all rumors, O'Neil said. "You could spend hours responding to everything out there."

Triggers for responding include how widespread media coverage has become, what the company hears from customers and employees, and what's being said online.

This past week, the rumor-response page on Starbucks' Web site addressed just three rumors: The one about the military, a false one about Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz supporting the Israeli armed forces, and a third that was true about a memo Schultz wrote to top executives last month saying the company's stores "no longer have the soul of the past."

"It's an ongoing check. If we've seen a significant drop, or if it becomes out of date, we'll take it down," O'Neil said.

McDonald's does not have a rumor-response page for U.S. customers, but its Australian business has a site called www.MakeUpYourOwnMind.com.au that addresses everything from whether its Filet-O-Fish sandwich has shark or dolphin (not true) to whether its soft-serve ice cream has pig fat.

"No idea how this one got started," the site says of the rumor. "There is definitely no lard or pig fat in the McDonald's Soft Serve."

___

(Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.)

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