There’s a Science to Squashing Rumors, and the Times Did the Opposite

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Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Social psychologists have known for a while how to effectively counter a rumor.

As I wrote in a 2008 Boston Globe story about the psychology of rumors, it has to be done quickly and assertively, since human beings can't stop talking about intriguing events when some central piece of information is missing:

Anthony Pratkanis, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies persuasion and propaganda, says that an effective rebuttal will be more than a denial — it will create a new truth, including an explanation of why the rumor exists and who is benefiting from it.

"The more vivid that replacement is, the better," says Pratkanis. He and other rumor specialists refer to this tactic as "stealing thunder." When done correctly and early enough in a rumor's lifetime, it can shift the subsequent conversation in beneficial ways.

The New York Times, as you're likely aware, is facing questions over whether the sudden departure of executive editor Jill Abramson has to do with her having been paid less than her predecessor Bill Keller (and possibly other men below her in the Times pecking order). And the paper couldn't have done a worse job managing this rumor if it tried.

As Gawker reported last night, the paper sent out three different responses to this question to three inquiring outlets (one of them Gawker itself), and the most precise answer it provided was that her pay was "directly comparable" to Keller's, which could mean a bunch of different things (my pay is "directly comparable" to Kanye West's in that we're both remunerated in U.S. dollars). All this imprecision and uncertainty provided heaps of grist for the rumor mill, proving once again that whether the situation involves Jay Z and Solange or America's most storied newspaper, the absence of clear information is deadly from a PR standpoint. And while Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did clear things up a bit today in a staff memo, [update: or not?] it took way too long.

What could the paper have done differently? It's pretty simple. As soon as the salary aspect of the story broke, the top brass at the Times should have gotten together and decided exactly how much information they were willing to reveal about Abramson's compensation package, and then immediately disseminated that information in an attention-getting way. The failure was in the delay — the Times could have prevented countless damaging tweets and blog posts and Facebook statuses by getting its act together sooner.