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Rumors -- business works hard trying to set the public straight

Industrial production may be down, but the corporate rumor mill is operating overtime. And Procter & Gamble Inc., for one, wouldn't mind if this mill were shut down.

Procter & Gamble is just one of a number of companies trying to stop the misinformation mill. Rumors are a chronic image problem for big business. McDonald's has battled a wormburger rumor, Entenmann's Bakery recently toppled a myth that it was owned by the Unification Church, and Perrier has struggled with a rumor that its ''haut de eau'' was bottled in the United States.

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But the battle against rumors continues. For the past two years, a fable has spread that the makers of Crest toothpaste, Pampers disposable diapers, and more than 50 other household products is owned by the Church of Satan. ''Proof'' of this diabolical relationship is said to be the Procter & Gamble moon and stars trademark.

Procter & Gamble wasn't overly concerned until last October when the rumor took on a new angle and new life. ''We started getting a lot of calls (more than 800 in October) from customers on the West Coast,'' says spokeswoman Kathy Gilbert.

''The new twist to the rumor was that a P&G executive was on the Phil Donahue Show,'' Ms. Gilbert says. ''But, in fact, none of our executives has been on any talk shows, discussing any connection with satanism. The company has no connection with satanism or devil worship. The moon-and-stars trademark represents P&G and has no other connection.''

Procter & Gamble quashed the West Coast rumor by mailing a fact sheet to the news media and churches. Unfortunately, the rumor has resurfaced in the Midwest and South.

''We're now averaging about 2,000 calls a month, says Ms. Gilbert. ''Again, consumers are saying they're hearing it at church. It seems to be spreading primarily through churches -- mostly the fundamentalist denominations. So, we are sending another mailing to national religious leaders and churches in the area.''

It is not unusual for churches, primarily fundamentalist churches, to be conduits for commercial rumors, says Frederick Koenig, a social psychologist teaching at Tulane University and writing a book on commercial rumors.

''In the summer of '78 I read that McDonald's was being harassed by a rumor that Ray Kroc, the chairman of its board, had donated 30 percent of his earnings to the Church of Satan. The rumor started a boycott by churches,'' he says. A large Protestant church in Oklahoma then sent out notices to boycott McDonald's without checking the facts first, which was ''less than a Christian act,'' he adds.

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While a legitimate concern may motivate the rebroadcast of rumors in church, Dr. Koenig says some churches spread rumors because ''rumors can legitimize a lot of the message that some ministers are passing on: that the world is in danger of being take over by Satan. . . .''

''If you're upset about the way the world is going and you hear a rumor that the Church of Satan is taking over, that just shows times are just as bad as you thought they were,'' he says. Or, for a laid-off autoworker, a rumor may support worries about imports, he adds.

A rumor circulated last fall in the Detroit area that people were finding snakes in the pockets of coats they tried on at a certain store. Customers would supposedly try on a coat, stick a hand in the pocket, and get bitten. Koenig says he believes the rumor was prevalent in Detroit because the snakes, according to the rumor, were ''oriental snakes.'' And the coats were imported from Asia.

So, what motivates the rumormonger? According to Koenig:

* ''Rumors not only justify feelings or structure the ambiguities of the world but also serve as a function for social relations. If I can tell you the kind of story that you want to hear, then you'll feel more close to me.''

* ''It's an attention-getting device. If you feel you're not getting as much attention, notoriety, or prestige as you'd like in your group, you're more apt to be receptive to a rumor and to pass it on and even embellish it.''

* ''There is no individual responsibility for passing a rumor on. A rumor can go all the way done the line with everyone saying, 'I don't know if it is true or not but I heard. . . .' So the normal controls over messages don't apply with rumors.''

Koenig has also observed that rumors are quite nebulous in nature. They may involve first one company and then another before settling on the most successful company -- where the rumor can get the most mileage.

For instance, in 1978, there was a well-publicized rumor that McDonald's hamburgers were made out of worms. The same rumor actually hit a number of other less well-known fast-food chains before it struck McDonald's. McDonald's, of course, heatedly denied the rumors. Not only will rumors switch targets, they may metamorphose within the same company.

A Coca-Cola executive told Koenig of a rumor that two men had fallen into a vat at the company's Brazilian plant. Koenig called the company to check on the rumor. He was told with authority, yes, we have the details. The rumor concerns two men that fell in a vat at a plant in the Far East.

Koenig has come across ''half-a-dozen different versions of the worker-in-the-vat rumor'' in his research.

How, then, does a business combat a rampant rumor? In four years of studying corporate rumors, Koenig hasn't developed any hard and fast rules, but he has some suggestions.

''If you're a big company, try to find out where it started and who's spreading it. Print up and distribute fact sheets without referring to the rumor. . . .

''Try to use the media to straighten out a message without calling attention to the rumor. In a contamination rumor, talk about the contents of the product without mentioning what the contamination rumor is.''

''If, and only if, all else fails -- go public with the rumor,'' advises Koenig. ''By making a rumor news -- it's no longer a rumor. The satisfaction or prestige derived from sharing information may be lost because the rumor has become public knowledge.''

One company with a rumor problem had great success with this last bit of advice. For two years a rumor bounced around the East Coast that the Unification Church (its members popularly known as Moonies) owned Entenmann's Bakery, a successful chain.

Sales in the Northeast were ''flattening out'' and bakery truckers were being harassed, according to spokesman Walter Weglein.

So Entenmann's held a press conference in Boston. Their story was picked up by the media and the result was positive.

Not only was the rumor stopped, but ''people came in to apologize, to confess they had been involved with the rumor,'' says Koenig, a consultant on the case.

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