Communicating a Crisis When the Crisis Is a Hoax

Thom Weidlich 06.29.17


How your organization responds to a crisis can depend in many situations on how much you are at fault. When the crisis is a hoax, you and your company aren’t to blame, but skillful communications are still required. In crisis communications, a false alarm isn’t really false — it’s still an alarm and you still have to respond to it. Here are some thoughts on communicating about hoaxes or other false-information situations.

False claims may at first seem credible. It may take time to determine internally that a situation is a hoax. This requires nimble gathering of information, always a challenge at the dawn of a crisis.

In the 2014 edition of its manual on “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication,” the Centers for Disease Control points to a 2005 hoax in New Zealand, where a prankster group told the prime minister that it had released a vial of foot-and-mouth disease.

As the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry investigated, it expressed its anger both to the public and farmers, who could be economically harmed by the situation. The ministry was able to declare the threat a hoax within a week.

Until the hoax is determined, your statements must be tentative and focused on the company’s investigation (“We are currently investigating this accusation…”).

Once the crisis is determined to be fake, the question then will be how hard the organization wants to hit back. That may depend on the motivation of the perpetrator. Was it a practical joke gone wrong? A mistake? Or something truly malicious?

Rumors Circulated

When rumors circulated that Doritos were found to contain Ebola, Frito-Lay was able to respond with some subtle humor in its denial: “While the Doritos brand is always a hot topic in social media, it is unfortunate someone chose to use this or any brand for such an insensitive prank.”

Unlike in so many other crisis situations, pointing fingers and expressing anger — even attacking the source — are not wrong responses to hoaxes.

Last year, when Whole Foods was accused of selling a cake with a homophobic message on it, the supermarket chain denied it from the beginning, but got more fierce in its rebuttals, to the point it threatened to countersue the accusing customer. Instead, the man fessed up and apologized.


While the Doritos brand is always a hot topic in social media, it is unfortunate someone chose to use this or any brand for such an insensitive prank.

— Frito-Lay

Fast-food restaurants are often the victims of hoaxes, such as accusations that a rodent has ended up in the food.

In 2005, a woman famously claimed a human finger had found its way into her chili at a Wendy’s restaurant. The company said the accusation cost it $21 million in lost business. The woman sued, but Wendy’s fought back, and she and her husband eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges.

Improper Supervision

Another issue in your level of response is how distant the perpetrator is from your organization. If he or she is an employee, you’re not scot-free because you can be accused of improper supervision.

In a famous 2009 incident, two Domino’s Pizza employees uploaded a video of themselves engaged in unsanitary acts such as one sticking cheese up his nose and then putting it on a sandwich allegedly destined for a customer.

The company said it knew almost immediately that the food was not in fact going to a customer — that it was a hoax — in part because it was a slow Easter Sunday. When that proved to be the case, the company still couldn’t express too much anger, despite being a victim, because the perpetrators were its own employees, who were then fired.

It’s a good idea to have as part of your employee policies and training the notion that there’s nothing funny about pranks in the workplace, and that violations are a firing offense.

Image Credit: Wendy’s

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at

Related:LA Sheriff’s Office Fails in Its Comms Over Shooting Hoax