An overwhelming majority of online public opinion leaders report that they read corporate rumors online and trade them with a wide variety of people.
New research by Burson-Marsteller shows that 81 percent of what the firm calls “e-fluentials” have used the Internet in the past year to discuss, post or forward hearsay information about a company, brand or CEO to their friends, family or colleagues.
Internet rumors have made big news over the past couple of years. In addition to spreading old rumors—such as the accusation that Procter & Gamble has ties to Satanism—the Internet was a source of much misinformation in the wake of the terrorist attacks two years ago, when it was used to disseminate charges that employees of filling stations and quick service restaurants had been celebrating the attacks. More recently, an e-mail campaign claimed coffee company Starbucks had withdrawn from the Israeli market for political reasons.
Other rumors—including fake news releases—have contained market sensitive information that has an impact on company stock price.
But such rumors are not taken at face value, at least by e-fluentials. The study showed that 86 percent of online opinion leaders first confirm details through news websites, such as CNN.com, MSNBC.com, ABCnews.com or NYTimes.com. And three out of every four (73 percent) of online influentials turn to a company’s website before trading on a rumor.
When probing hearsay information they read online, these influencers prefer to use the Internet than traditional sources such as newspapers and magazines (62 percent), business associates (51 percent) and TV news programs (41 percent).
“Next to news sites, e-fluentials are most likely to visit company websites to confirm the truth about corporate actions and activities,” said Burson-Marsteller’s director of knowledge development Idil Cakim. “This is encouraging news for companies, which have the ability to control the information about their enterprises, and respond to individuals’ questions.”
But the study reinforces the need for companies to listen carefully to website visitors’ questions and be prepared to provide accurate information about their operations and core values.
“The Internet has become a highly relevant communications platform to reach opinion leaders who can dramatically affect a company’s business,” says Judi Mackey, chair of Burson-Marsteller’s U.S. corporate and financial practice. “These latest findings demonstrate the importance of the Web as a primary means for disseminating fast and thorough information to diverse audiences such as investors, customers, media and employees.
“Companies that fail to operate online crisis and issues management centers miss opportunities to dispel rumors and gain critical stakeholders’ support.”