Rumor Control: Keeping Momentum in a Presidential Campaign

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Senator Barack Obama yesterday announced an effort to deal with rumors in a timely way, to prevent them from taking hold and throwing his campaign off balance.

He’s right to be so concerned. Rumors can throw a presidential campaign off its game, and provide adversaries, critics, and opponents with a first-mover advantage that’s hard to beat. The last 20 years teach a great deal about the importance of effective rumor control.

The Secret of Quick Response

In 1992 George Stephanopoulos joined the presidential campaign of Governor Bill Clinton as head of quick response, a position he had also held in the notoriously slow-to-respond 1988 campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis had been a micro-manager, who insisted on participating in all major decisions of his campaign, including rumor control. But the realities of a presidential candidate’s schedule meant that rumors were left unaddressed for days, and even longer. Vice President George H.W. Bush and his allies capitalized on the paralysis in the Dukakis campaign. When a racist attack ad about a released convict named Willie Horton appeared, Dukakis’ feeble response allowed the ad to define him as soft on crime.Still image from the Willie Horton ad

Asked by a reporter in 1992 what lessons he learned about quick response from his experience in the 1988 Dukakis campaign, Stephanopoulos noted, “I learned the secret of quick response: It’s that you need to respond, and to do it quickly.”

Respond Quickly

That insight became the basis of one of the most effective rumor control operations in the history of presidential politics. Along with his colleague James Carville, Stephanopoulos created Clinton’s rapid response war room, which was immortalized in the 1993 documentary film The War Room.

The 1992 Clinton war room dominated the thrust-and-parry of the campaign, exercising rumor control discipline the likes of which have not been seen since. Every rumor was addressed, most within 45 minutes of surfacing, so that few of the rumors that were briefly in play – and they were legion – stuck to Governor Clinton.

Referring to Carville and Stephanopoulos, The War Room declared: They Changed the Way Campaigns Are Won.

Changing The Way Campaigns Are Won


The rapid-response capability of President Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996 wasn’t as effective. Senator Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign was marginally more effective at timely rumor control than the 1996 Clinton re-election effort, but it didn’t match the 1992 war room.


And in 2004, Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign was kept off balance and unable to deal with the swirl of rumors around it, including a concerted effort by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (sic), who were tenacious in challenging Senator Kerry’s Vietnam war record. Kerry didn’t actively manage the rumors and lost the advantage of his military service record.

Avoiding the Next Swift Boat Attack

Senator Obama is learning both from the prior campaigns and from his recent experience in the primary and in the first phases of the general election campaign. On Thursday he launched Fight the Smears, a section of his campaign website that deals with rumors.

On the first day alone the site addressed and refuted five rumors:

  1. That a video exists with Mrs. Michele Obama referring to whites as “whitey.”
  2. That Barack Obama was not born in the US and is therefore not eligible to run for president, and refuses to disclose his birth certificate.
  3. That Obama is a Muslim.
  4. That Obama uses racially-incendiary language in his book.
  5. That Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance or to put his hand over his heart.

How Rumors Work

The 1992 Clinton War Room pre-dated the Internet as a common communication tool, so it required Stephanopoulos or Carville to call reporters and provide them with material or commentary that refuted any given rumor.

Today the blogosphere makes everything available to everyone simultaneously. Although Obama’s and Governor Clinton’s methods were different, they were both true to the principles of effective rumor control.

Our firm specializes in rumor control, and through our Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership we’ve done significant academic and practical research on rumor dynamics.

The seminal work in rumors was begun in the 1940s by two Harvard University social psychologists, Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman. (The pair was best known for researching the “telephone” phenomenon where one person tells something to another, who passes it on, etc. until the final person in a chain hears something dramatically different from what the first person said.)

In their 1948 book The Psychology of Rumor, Allport and Postman define a rumor as:

“A proposition for belief submitted in the absence of secure standards of evidence.”

They also note that unguided by objective evidence, people make judgments based on their subjective preferences, prejudices, and fears.

Allport and Postman developed a mathematical formula that describes rumor dynamics:

R ~ I x A, where

R = the Rumor
I = the Importance one assigns to the rumor, if true, and
A= the level of ambiguity surrounding the rumor and its denial.

So the key to eliminating a rumor is to demonstrate unambiguously that it’s false. Or to reduce the importance of the rumor.

Allport and Postman note that silence is subjectively ambiguous.

So if we assume a scale of 0 to 10, we can project how a rumor might circulate.

Assume a rumor that is high in interest, say 10. And assume silence on the part of the subject of the rumor, 10.

Here’s the math:

R ~ I x A
R ~ 10 x 10
100 ~ 10 x 10

That’s what happened to Dukakis when he remained silent about the Willie Horton ad, and to Kerry when he remained silent in the wake of the Swift Boat attack.

But a definitive refutation of the rumor would yield a dramatically different result:

R ~ I x A
R ~ 10 x 0
0 ~ 10 x 0

The rumor would disappear.

As important as the rumor dyamics formula is when the formula is applied. In rumors as in many other spheres of influence, there’s a first mover advantage. Crisis management experts speak of the Golden Hour of Crisis Response.

The Golden Hour refers not to a particular number of minutes, but to the observation that incremental delays in responding effectively to rumors (as with the R ˜ I X A formula) lead to greater-than-incremental changes in the outcome. In other words, what is sufficient to put a rumor to rest in the earliest phases may be quite insufficient later.

The longer it takes to refute a rumor, the more intense it becomes, the more people are invested in it, the more harm it causes, and the harder it is to eventually refute. Or, as Mark Twain supposedly said,

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth even gets its boots on.”

Quick response is key. Having the truth’s boots on before the rumor gets going is how to prevent its spread.

That’s what Obama is hoping for.

So far he’s succeeding. Let’s look at one of the five rumors he addressed just on the day he launched Fight the Smears: that Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance or to put his hand over his heart. That rumor had spread through the blogosphere and was repeated in the media.

How can Obama refute this rumor? It’s easy. His site now shows a video of Obama in the U.S. Senate chamber leading his colleagues in the Pledge of Allegiance, hand over his heart.

Or a second rumor: that Obama was born outside the U.S. and is therefore ineligible to run for president, and that he’s hiding his birth certificate. This is also easy to refute: Obama simply put his birth certificate online.

Following the principle of R ~ I x A, the definitive demonstration that Obama was born in the U.S. (Honolulu) and the public posting of the birth certificate reduces ambiguity to zero:
R ~ 10 x 0

And anything multiplied by zero is zero.

0 ~ 10 x 0

So the rumor dies.

Changing the Game

In addition to using the Fight the Smears site to refute rumors, Obama is also adding a viral dimension: a “spread the word” link for each rumor that allows anyone on the site to automatically send an e-mail message to friends informing them both of the rumor and its refutation. In this way, Obama is spreading the refutation, providing allies with a quick response to anyone who might raise the rumor with them. In other words, he’s deputizing an army of rumor-control officers.

Obama’s aggressive engagement on the rumor front is likely to make it much harder for adversaries and critics to get traction with rumors, especially the more egregious kinds that have been circulating recently.

My own sense is that Obama’s strategy will change the game; will force adversaries to seek different ways to discredit him. So rumors will decline in significance. Just as the right used the blogosphere effectively to spread rumors about John Kerry, Obama is using the blogosphere effectively to contain rumors about him.

If the 1992 war room changed the way campaigns are won, Obama’s Fight the Smears site will likely change the way campaigns are run.

For more on rumors and how they work, see our article in the Summer 2007 Crisis Management issue of PR Strategist magazine, or our Best Practices Guide Preventing and Overcoming Rumors.

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