A few things have been on my mind about the nature of accountability in PR crises lately, in no small part thanks to Uber’s growing troubles and YouTube’s biggest personality losing deals with major partners. None of this is meant to fully address any one story specifically, but they may come up as examples.
Some PR crises explode not from a single event, but from an accumulation or pattern of unresolved events. Bad PR doesn’t always cause a crisis – perhaps the story only gets a little attention, the news cycle moves on, the situation blows over, etc. But even when bad PR doesn’t result in disaster, that doesn’t erase the slate. That event gets tucked away into the memory banks of the public and media, ready to be pre-loaded into the next news beat. That makes the work that comes after an instance of bad PR (listening earnestly to criticism, being transparent, following through on promises made, etc.) important in how the next potential crisis <knock on wood> unfolds.
Uber didn’t stumble into PR trouble at the start of 2017; it had years of bad PR here and there, quietly accumulating until the right story opened the floodgates and unleashed a torrent of repressed public sentiment. Patterns of behavior with their own snowballing narratives could be drawn together, and those can be especially challenging to rewrite.
Some will enjoy seeing you fail, and how you react to that matters. During a PR crisis, it can be easy to arrive at the conclusion that, because your supporters appear to be with you, the opinions of critics (a group containing outsiders who don’t get what you’re trying to achieve and often seem to celebrate your misfortune) shouldn’t be entertained.
But that can be a dangerous position to do business from – it assumes your supporters are looking out for your best interests; or are doing so for the right intentions; or are rational adults (and not literally children, which is especially relevant when influencer PR on Twitch or YouTube is involved). Being able to divorce criticism from the potential sentiment or tone of those providing it can be valuable in determining which voices to listen to during a PR disaster.
You can be held accountable for the messages you give a platform to, regardless of intent. A sentiment I routinely see is the idea that individual influencers, companies, etc. can’t be held accountable for the toxic and hateful atmosphere of Twitch chat, YouTube comments, Discord channels, tweets, etc. This has always struck me as naive because the very act of those names appearing next to words like toxicity and hate in headlines, news stories, tweets, and public discussion is, by itself, a form of responsibility. Do I think that means every last YouTuber is to blame for YouTube comments being awful? Of course not. Do I think any individual has the power to fully fix that problem? Again, no.
But having a platform imparts some degree of responsibility for what that platform puts out into the world. Even taking PewDiePie at his word that his broadcasting of an anti-Semitic message was a joke meant to highlight a problematic paid service available online, we still arrive at the fact that a direct message of hate was spread far more than an implied message of… whatever the message was intended to be. As a result, his name appeared at length across public discourse next to words like hate and racism. It’s almost irrelevant whether you thought the controversy was fair or not; he could be held responsible for it regardless.
Three years ago, many gaming companies had little idea what to make of gaming’s growing influencer community – those days are fast becoming history. More and more, we’re watching them shift their questions from “who’s the biggest influencer we can get?” to “who can be trusted not to damage our brand with problematic content?” They’re paying more attention to the messages that people with platforms give voice to (intended or not) and making decisions about who to work with accordingly.