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Chuck Hagel and ‘Friends of Hamas’: Anatomy of a Smear Campaign

Chuck HagelDon’t you just hate it when people (especially anonymous people) spread false claims about yourself or your clients? Everybody does! This week’s journalistic hackery scandal isn’t really our stock in trade, but it is certainly an interesting one for anyone concerned with promoting stories and earning media mentions for clients.

Here’s the summary: in January President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, for the Secretary of Defense position. Unfriendly media outlets soon began running stories about Hagel’s supposed ties to anti-Israel advocacy organizations, eventually dropping the ominous name “Friends of Hamas.”

Whatever Hagel’s politics may be, there is no such group–but that fact didn’t stop the story from spreading.

Today a reporter for the New York Daily News published a column identifying himself as the (unintentional) source of the smear. Dan Friedman called a source within the U.S. Senate two weeks ago to ask whether there might be any truth to rumors, floated by Hagel opponents, that accused him of making paid appearances before anti-Israel groups. Friedman jokingly suggested the names “Friends of Hamas” and “Junior League of Hezbollah.”

Things only went downhill from there.

After promising to follow up with Friedman, the source apparently spoke to a blogger at the right-wing site Breitbart.com, who quickly wrote a post naming the (fictional) group as a potential “secret Hagel donor” and claimed that White House contacts hung up on him when he asked about it (ask a dumb question, get a dumb answer). The story quickly grew legs despite the fact that the blogger himself never attested to its accuracy.

Today the Internet is having a good laugh about the whole thing–Gawker‘s Max Read even created a fake “Friends of Hamas” website. But it’s really not a joke–congressmen and national political figures with huge audiences (like Mike Huckabee) repeated the rumor as it spread. They didn’t say it was true, they just said it was “troubling”, which is bad enough.

We see clear parallels between this story and cases that call upon PR professionals to issue official statements dispelling negative rumors about their clients. (For example, Carnival Cruise Lines never actually forced guests to sign waivers.)

What can we learn from the Hagel narrative? No one should be surprised at the speed with which Internet rumors spread. Individuals who already dislike you or your client will gladly share defamatory info without checking to see whether it’s accurate or not.

We believe that PR pros must, to some degree, accept this as the way things work now. The good news? False internet smears have a way of self-destructing just like this story did today.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t protect our clients from such misinformation. But in some cases, the best way to respond to an inflammatory story is to allow those who pushed it to continue digging until they have no credibility left.

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