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Managing Rumour and Perception


A rumour is a piece of information the credibility and validity of which cannot be confirmed. It is usually a mixture of truth and untruth. Rumours spread easily between people, especially if there is a lack of official information, or facts, that are believed. At times rumours are purposefully circulated to promote the interests of a certain person or group – such as for financial, social or religious gain. Rumours are often ‘unproveable’ and therefore taken as truth, or fact, when they are spread, and people begin to hear the same from many sources.

Perceptions are the awareness and understanding that people have about any given thing. Different people may have different perceptions about the same thing. For example, one person might perceive an organisation to be doing helpful work whereas another person might perceive the organisation as there to do harm. Perceptions and rumours are closely linked as a person’s perception – especially ‘thought leaders’ or authorities in that community – can cause rumours to spread more quickly if it validates the perception a group already holds. This is true for both online communities as well as physical communities.

Organisations need to be aware how rumours and perceptions can affect their activities and staff safety. Situations can quickly arise where managers are unaware of a perception held about them by a community or a rumour that is spreading around them. The organisation needs to have a way of filtering and managing information circulated in rumour and understand the effect that can have on communities in which they work. Every organisation has a responsibility to use information wisely and sift rumour from truth before acting.

International humanitarian aid organisations manage rumours and their perception daily as it is part of their ability to deliver services. Some rumours international organisations face have been:

  • They are spies paid for by foreign governments.

  • They are collecting data to be used by the government (or a rebel group, or a foreign government)

  • They hire based on favouritism rather than merit

  • They are promoting a western culture and lifestyle / are undermining local culture

  • They are spreading disease

An organisation’s ability to know about, manage and counter these rumours and manage their perception is crucial to keeping their staff safe and continuing to work in an area.

Mitigation Measures

While it is impossible to control rumours or fully manage other’s perception being aware of perception and having a way to filter and counter unhelpful rumours is vital to organisational safety.

What is triangulation

So how do security managers know what information to act on and what to ignore? Usually, this is done by a process called, ‘triangulation’. Triangulation is a surveying term that has become used to describe ‘cross-checking’ or ‘verifying’ information. Generally, it is the confirmation by two or more independent and credible sources of a piece of information which thereby reduces the uncertainty of the truth of that information. Triangulation might never fully validate the information.

To ‘triangulate’ or ‘cross-check’ information a security manager should gather as much information about the event, or information being passed, as possible but at least who, what, when, where, why and how. This can be done by checking with other credible sources to find out if they have seen or heard the same thing. Credible sources might be other employees, local authorities, or people in the community.

Determining the credibility of the source is crucial and requires subjective valuing of their reporting and motivations. Information passed to you may be inadvertently altered due to stress, political ties, fear, and aspirations. Some use a framework for evaluating the reliability of the source as well as the credibility of the data. If the source from which you gain the information is very reliable and the information they give is confirmed by other sources, you have a very reliable piece of information. Likewise, if you receive information from a source that is usually unreliable, and the information is not confirmed by anyone else you have a very unreliable piece of information.

Careful consideration should be given, to rumours and perceptions that come to you whether you consider them true or not. As we have seen recently with the spread of so-called ‘fake news’, truth matters little if those who wish to harm the organisation, or its employees believe it to be true. People will act on perception alone without waiting to validate information themselves – especially if they feel their safety or wellbeing is at stake.

How can employees help manage rumours and perception?

All organisation staff, and hired contractors, play a vital role in reporting and defusing untrue rumours. This is especially true for employees who are normally ignored when it comes to security training and involvement in the organisation’s mission – that is, the office cleaners, cooks, guards, drivers or other administrative staff. These are the people most crucial in rumour and perception management as they are the ones out most in the community who can quickly report issues as they are just beginning and be ambassadors to correct wrong information. Employees should know that if anyone hears a rumour, or of a perception about the organisation that could result in harm that it should be reported immediately.

A Manager’s Role in Rumour and Perception Management

Managers have a responsibility to their staff and organisation to be aware of how they are perceived, and rumours related to them. Ignoring them, or believing that they won’t be acted on, can end in violence. Some steps managers can take are:

  1. Ensure there are open channels of communication with local staff, local authorities and the local community through which you will receive rumours and information before any activity starts. Explicitly state that you would like to be made aware of rumours even if the people who tell you about them don’t believe them.

  2. Talk to your staff on the importance of reporting rumours and teach them the difference between validated information and rumour. Ask them how they know if something is true. Ask them how they/their community would act if something happened.

  3. Maintain a good liaison with the other organisations working in the same region/area and keep updated through information sharing with them.

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