YouTube Shooting Shows Brands Can Be Unwillingly Dragged Into a Crisis

A few years back, the conventional wisdom was brands were better off staying as far away from social and political issues as possible. In many cases, it's still the advice communicators and marketers advocate. For example,  in a survey of 360 chief marketing officers at for-profit companies released this week, fewer than 20% agreed it’s appropriate for their brands to take a stance on politically charged issues.

Such thinking is at odds with other surveys showing consumers want brands to take stands. This is particularly true of millennials, who want brands to stand for something. That ‘something’ often is a social or political issue.

Despite what a brand thinks about entering the fray, some have no choice. Brands are pulled into political issues when government officials mention them. The president’s comments recently about Amazon are examples. As the NY Times notes, Amazon has plenty of company. The president has blasted Verizon, Nordstrom, Coca-Cola, Sony and H&R Block, among other companies.

It’s barely news anymore when the president blasts media brands such as CNN or the NY Times.

Speaking of media companies, though they have trouble acknowledging it, brands such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube exhibit many of the characteristics of media companies. As such, when those brands enact policies, they can have global implications and unintended consequences. While brand communicators know this, it never hurts to think about the basics.

YouTube Pulled Into Situation

As you know, YouTube and its employees found themselves pulled in to the middle of a terrible incident yesterday.

While it is unclear what the motive was behind the awful shooting at its headquarters in San Bruno, California Tuesday, some early media stories are speculating the actions of the alleged shooter, Nasim Najif Aghdam, 39, can be traced to YouTube policies that she disliked. The NRA also is part of the story.

The first YouTube policy in the mix prohibits content intended to sell firearms directly or by linking to sites that sell guns or other weapons. Unveiled in late March, it extends to videos providing information on how to assemble or install firearms and their accessories.

It is unclear whether or not it was a new policy or YouTube was clarifying an existing policy prohibiting the sale of firearms on its platform.

Here’s the NRA wrinkle. Media reports note Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Institute for Legislative Action, reacted to the YouTube policy by blasting it as censorship and politically motivated in the wake of the Parkland High School shooting in February. “Millions of Americans watch YouTube videos every day to learn more about the safe and responsible use of firearms, and those videos show law-abiding gun owners participating in lawful behavior,” Cox said in a statement.

NRATV host Grant Stinchfield called for gun advocates to “fire back” against the “leftists in California” by posting a deluge of pro-gun videos. “Overwhelm” them, he urged viewers March 27.

Monetization Policies

Another possible motive, media reports say, is being linked to moves YouTube made earlier this year making it more difficult for Aghdam and many others to earn money producing videos.

Aghdam was making a living as a YouTube personality, her family told reporters yesterday. In the videos she's seen dancing and singing in English, Farsi and Turkish.

In January, YouTube said it was making changes to its policies on monetization, among other areas. The rules were intended mainly for its community of independent creators, a large group of small video makers like Aghdam. The new rules tightened monetization standards for video creators. They also included tougher reviews of content and more control over where ads appear. Like many other small video producers, Aghdam was upset with these changes. YouTube instituted them to better control content on its site.

While it seems very likely Aghdam was a disturbed individual and her reason or reasons for aiming to kill people cannot be justified, there are lessons for brand communicators to extract from this terrible incident.

One of the first places authorities and media seek answers about shooting suspects is social media where, as we know, brands are highly visible. Should the suspect have any connection to your brand you could be pulled into a situation unwillingly. Preparation in advance for such situations is highly recommended.

Second, knee-jerk reactions to media stories early in a crisis usually are a bad move. YouTube's messaging ignored early stories that attempted to provide a motive to the shooter's actions.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.31.03 AMLast, make sure your policies about employees using social media are reviewed periodically and staff receive annual training on them. A few hours after the incident, Teddy Kartzman, identifying himself as a YouTube employee, used the moment to express his displeasure with President Trump's tweeted reaction and gun control policies. This is another way for a brand to be dragged unwillingly into a political situation.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNews. Follow him: @skarenstein