When Activists Go After Podcasting Host Companies

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(By Tim O’Brien) The first time I dealt with a “corporate campaign” it involved a labor union that had picketers camped out on a cul de sac in the exclusive neighborhood where my client’s CEO lived. The tactic worked.

While the CEO had no trouble maintaining a hard line in negotiations across the bargaining table, his neighbors and family had no taste for getting drawn into a labor dispute. They didn’t want the noise and the media attention on their quiet street. And they didn’t want to have to navigate picketers when they came and went from their homes.

The CEO caved.

Actually, I think the term “corporate campaign” is inaccurate. It would better be described as a “personal campaign” because that’s a better way to describe when activists invade the personal realm of the targets of their pressure.

Since that incident, corporate campaigns have gotten much more sophisticated and even more effective.

Fast forward to today where we see activist working to pressure the heads of “big tech” to take content down they don’t like. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have become the early battlegrounds in this way.

Until now, it’s been largely assumed that the tech platforms could and should be agnostic unless an outright crime was being committed using certain social platforms. So, for instance, if an active shooter is using Facebook live while he is on a rampage, Facebook has policies in place to take the content down immediately. Child pornography is another obvious violation of all laws and standards for decency, and as such it is subject to removal from sites and the notification of law enforcement.

Strategic Attempts to Ban Certain Content

But what about political content? What about content the activists just don’t like? Whose job is it to police the platforms and make value judgement decisions on whether that content should be left to stand? Further, whose job should it be to determine whether some content creators deserve to have a presence on the platform to begin with?

While these high-level questions are important, it’s increasingly possible  that a few podcasts and a podcast hosting company could find themselves facing some of the same challenges that YouTube and Facebook are wrestling with today.

Aren’t Hosting Platforms Supposed to be Agnostic?

Some of the same activists who want YouTube to remove certain videos can make an equally visible statement by demanding a podcast hosting company take down certain episodes or entire podcasts on allegations that the content of the podcasts is, as they define it, “hate speech.”

Whether it truly is hate speech or not, the important thing in the minds of some in the public domain is the “seriousness of the charge.” Once a podcast or a podcaster is accused of creating hate speech, it may not be long before the hosting company is accused of being an enabler.

Strategically, activists view the downstream channels as attractive pressure points, soft targets, if you will. So, if they want to shut down a podcast, they’re likely to try to pressure the podcast creator first. Then they might move downstream to the podcast hosting company, and then from there, they might pressure the podcast channel or directory.

At each stop along the way, they may resort to corporate campaign tactics. So, it’s not far-fetched to consider that at some point a podcast hosting company and its leadership could face any of the following scenarios:

  • Activists target them with allegations that the hosting company is enabling hate speech.
  • Activists create negative hashtags around the campaign to create a “Twitter storm.”
  • I’ve seen activists pour through past social media posts and blog posts and other content to lift certain content out of context to vilify their targets.
  • Depending on the scale of the campaign, boycotts can be called, and physical protests can be staged, sometimes in front of office buildings.  Other times if it’s really intense, they could choose to protest in front of their target’s home.
  • Doxing is a sad possibility.
  • And of course, there are the courts. Activist attorneys sometimes think nothing of taking individuals or companies to court over baseless allegations, knowing that while the court case itself may lack merit, the act of filing suit can have a major impact. When they file their claims, lawyers may publicize it broadly, which can render a ‘guilty’ verdict in the court of public opinion. Related to this, litigation, regardless of the outcome, is usually expensive and that can cause harm as well.

Podcasting now counts more than 900,000 podcasts in its universe, and that number is likely to reach one million sometime this year. These are great times for the industry.  But as with any growing sector, it can capture the attention of some with their own agendas. The best response will be a prepared one, and that comes from being crisis ready.

Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications and has provided crisis and issues management counsel and support to clients from Fortune 500 companies, to start-ups and nonprofits. He is also the creator of the Shaping Opinion Podcast. To get in touch with Tim, call 412.854.8845, timobrien@timobrienpr.com, or on Twitter: @OBrienPR

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