When a Rumor is a Good Thing

Publicity efforts in public relations are primarily a “push” effort.  PR people try to get others to use or view their information.  It is rare when publicity is a “pull” effort where people seek out your information.  Crises are an example of “pull” efforts as stakeholders want to know what happened.  However, no sane managers want to build publicity efforts around a crisis.  Yes, you can get positive effects from an extreme well managed crisis but that is not a option with a high reward value given the costs (damages) and risks.  It is within the realm of crises that we find rumors and the right type of “pull” effort.

In crises, rumors or rumours are defined as incorrect information circulating about your organization.  More generally, a rumor is information that lacks verification—people do not know whether or not it is true.  We typically think of rumors as a bad thing, as in crises, but rumors can be true and beneficial.  One popular view of rumors is that they are sensemaking efforts designed to reduce uncertainty.  As rumor experts Bordia and DiFonzo (2004) stated, “Rumors arise in situations that are personally relevant but ambiguous or cognitively unclear, and when credible explanations are not available from traditional sources” (p. 33).  [To see the first page of their article go to http://www.jstor.org/pss/3649102 which is Social Psychological Quarterly (2006) volume 1].  Most rumor research still focuses on how sensemaking is used to cope with problems (dread).  But the research also examines wish rumors which can be linked to opportunities.

In December of 2009, more Internet traffic was being generated for an Apple rumor.  Now Apple has had its share of problem rumors.  The best case being Steve Job’s supposed heart attack that caused Apple stock to drop in price (http://flowtv.org/?p=2259).  But in December of 2009, the focus was on a potential new product, the Apple tablet.  Many legitimate new sources were reporting on the rumor including the Financial Times (http://blogs.ft.com/techblog/2009/12/exclusive-apple-to-host-event-in-january/) and Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-apple-tablet31-2009dec31,0,5542993.story).   The rumor reports are a form of publicity for the “product.”  People, driven by uncertainty caused by a lack of official information by Apple, are searching the Internet for more information about the Apple tablet thereby fueling the rumor.  This is “pull” publicity as people seek information about the product via rumors.

The rumored product is essentially a large version of the iPhone with a screen just over 10 inches.  The device will be very light and capable of being a book reader like Kindle.  It will have a touch screen and virtual keyboard so no need for a mouse.  Evidence to support the rumor come from searches of the U.s. Patent Office records, Apple booking the San Francisco Convention Center in later January for product announcement, and people close to Apple releasing information (anonymous sources).  In addition, people “know” the product will cost around $800 and be released in the summer of 2010.  One of the hot places for information is Mac Rumors, a blog written by Arnold Kim that tracks rumors about Apple http://www.macrumors.com/

Here is sample of content from Mac Rumors about the Apple tablet:

“Exactly what purpose or role an Apple tablet will fulfill is a legitimate question that has been raised on a number of occasions. Since other company’s tablets have so far been commercially unsuccessful, what could Apple bring to the table that will suddenly make them a success? Steve Jobs himself has previously questioned what they were good for besides surfing the web in the bathroom.

Gruber believes the upcoming Apple Tablet will replace the low end of Apple’s portable computer market which is currently held by the MacBook and instead focus on some core functionality and do it well.

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

Like all Apple products, The Tablet will do less than we expect but the things it does do, it will do insanely well. It will offer a fraction of the functionality of a MacBook — but that fraction will be way more fun.

Apple clearly has been able to reinvent a class of product like they did with the MP3 player (iPod) and mobile phone (iPhone), and people are certainly hoping they will be able to do the same thing with the Tablet. Much of the differentiation of these products was done in software, so we agree with Gruber that the Tablet OS can’t and won’t simply be a scaled up iPhone OS or scaled down Mac OS.

One common prediction I disagree with is that The Tablet will simply be more or less an iPod Touch with a much bigger display. But in the same way that it made no sense for Apple to design the iPhone OS to run Mac software, it makes little sense for a device with a 7-inch (let alone larger) display to run software designed for a 3.5-inch display.

Exactly how that will be accomplished, of course, is the big secret.

Apple is rumored to be launching their Tablet in 2010 and Steve Jobs has been described as being extremely happy with the upcoming device.”  http://www.macrumors.com/

There is a lot of information out there for a product Apple has never officially discussed.  There is even more interest than information at this point.  The case illustrates the potential of a rumor to fuel “pull” publicity.  Of course not all organizations are Apple and not all products will generate such interest but there is potential for positive rumors when information is scare and interest is high.  The key is find ways to leak information to help move the rumor along.

Questions to Consider

  1. Is it ethical for organizations to fuel rumors about themselves?  Why or why not?
  2. How does the online environment help to make rumors an effective form of “pull” publicity?
  3. Based on the case, what are the optimal conditions necessary for creating an effective rumor to drive positive publicity?
  4. What is the role on a site like Mac Rumors in this process of rumors for positive publicity?
  5. How might an organization transition/build from rumor publicity to traditional publicity?
  6. What are the greatest risks associated with using rumors to develop positive, “pull” publicity?

One Response to When a Rumor is a Good Thing

  1. […] The Internet buzz for the new Apple tablet has been intense.  See the early blog case about it https://prstrategyandapplication.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/when-a-rumor-is-a-good-thing/.  Or go out online and find any of the thousands of posts and the invention.  It was rumored to […]

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