3 PR Takes On YouTube’s Brand Safety Scandal

YouTube was hit with a major brand safety crisis this week after a blogger revealed that a community of predators have been using the platform to view content in inappropriate ways that exploit children. In the wake of the scandal, some of YouTube’s biggest advertisers, including Disney and AT&T, have pulled the plug on their ad spend – at least for now. To its credit, YouTube has been aggressive in its response, promising to clean up its comments system, improve its video recommendations engine, and apply more stringent brand safety standards.

From a PR perspective, there are a few takeaways from the controversy that are important.

YouTube has learned from its mistakes (believe it or not)
A year ago, YouTube was constantly plagued by brand safety issues. Every brand – from IBM to Under Armour – was pausing ad investment left and right. The frequency of the scandals created notable hesitation among advertisers and marketers. Worse, there was a sense in the industry that YouTube wasn’t being aggressive in dealing with the problem. But that changed in subsequent months after the platform announced new capabilities and initiatives to ensure brand safety, including more human auditing and better technology. YouTube knew, however, that similar controversies would arise in 2019 given the UGC nature of the platform. This time, it was more prepared, and it shows. Compare their response, for example, to Facebook’s reaction to its data privacy scandal, which has gone from bad to worse.

The cycle is predictable, and brands are prepared
From the coverage to the brand responses, there is now a clear pattern after every YouTube brand safety crisis. There is deserved outrage and criticism, followed by major brands walking back ad spend for the platform. Whether you’re Disney or P&G, brands now have a process in place to deal with YouTube’s challenges and protect their standing as good corporate citizens. They can announce that they’re pausing spend, generating more proactive and friendly headlines. Then, quietly, weeks later, they will return to YouTube until the next scandal hits. Rinse and repeat. At the end of the day, YouTube’s audience is too big for advertisers to ignore. And as a longform video platform, its scale is unmatched and irreplaceable.

Each scandal is a win for other platforms and publishers
As YouTube sees negative headlines over its community and the way content is served, other video platforms — from TikTok to Instagram — are likely thrilled. While those platforms are also user-driven, which creates challenges for ensuring appropriate content, any bad story about YouTube is a good story for them. It allows competitors to highlight their value and possibly win YouTube dollars that are ripe for being reinvested. Premium digital publishers also benefit from the scandal. It gives them an opportunity to present their content as a “walled garden” that is high quality and brand-safe by comparison. Bad YouTube stories are good stories for publishers everywhere. And I expect them to newsjack the controversy and shift focus back to their own attributes in order to win over YouTube’s upset partners.

In the end, however, YouTube will be fine. Advertisers will flee, then they’ll return. The rhythm of these controversies is obvious, and for the next scandal, I will likely just repost this piece.

When Brands Overreact To PR Problems

Social-media-fueled brand controversies are more common than ever in the digital age. But even in the current crisis-of-the-hour media environment, it’s natural for major brands to take slights very seriously. Where millions of dollars are spent and fat profit margins are at stake, overreactions are understandable. You can almost sense the confusion, conflicting advice, and panic beneath the surface.

Most businesses will back down in the face of controversy, even when the criticisms are groundless. Remember when Gap backpedaled as brand-watchers criticized its new logo? Admittedly, the new logo was bland and the backlash probably added color to its reputation, but it was a stunning reversal in such a short time.

Sometimes a brand will simply cave. Home center chain Lowe’s pulled its ads when threatened with a boycott over its support of a reality show called “All-American Muslim.” The decision was met with fresh outrage from progressives, so it was a true lose-lose for the chain. But word like “one million moms” have been known to trigger a hasty media planning redesign.

That’s why it was refreshing when Cheerios, assaulted by YouTube trolls over a charming ad featuring an interracial family, was so unfazed in its response to criticism. Not only did it refuse to back down (and why should it?) but the tone of the brand’s response made it clear that the ad would go on.

Of course, it’s easy to stand your ground when confronted with ugliness, but lots of companies would have quietly killed the ad. More importantly, most probably wouldn’t have produced it in the first place.

So, cheers to Cheerios for wanting to position its brand as inclusive and up-to-date. And even more for unapologetically disabling nasty comments and seeing the PR gold in letting the commercial’s actors speak for the brand.

By meeting its critics head-on instead of overreacting, Cheerios elevated the spot from a progressive commercial to a statement about brand values. And it reaped bowlfuls of good will in the process. Well done.

TGIF: @#$% That Clients Say

This week New York Magazine reported on the “most- and least-critically acclaimed “@#$% People Say” videos on YouTube. Apparently, the category for things that “girls” say has the highest number of “likes.”

Well, if you’re in the PR industry, I think you might find some of the choice comments made by your clients would earn more “likes,” or at least some curiosity. Here are a few of our favorites:

1.  “So, this will make CNN, right?”

2.  “I love the idea, but it needs something. I’m not sure what, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

3.  “I’m looking for a firm to grow with me.”

4.  “Can you resend that again?”

5.  “I need a press release to drive lots of traffic to the website.”

6.  “Don’t write a program. Just give me an idea of how you’d approach it.”

7.  “Budget? There’s no budget. But for the right idea, we’ll try to find it.”

8.  “I need to double my Facebook followers by next month.”

9.  “Did you tell the reporter we advertise with them?”

10. “Steve Jobs was on the cover of TIME.  Can we get our CEO there?”

And the list goes on and on… What are your favorites?