Spotify should do more soul-searching. That’s the prevailing opinion among crisis management experts in the aftermath of recent Boycotts by artists and fans over the popular streaming service’s loyalty to Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast.
The following are the Public outcrySpotify is now at crossroads. It must choose between helping its customers by being kind and making the best profit. Spotify has attempted to accomplish both. It removed 70 of Rogan’s episodes, released its internal rules on removing audio content, and added an advisory to any podcast that discusses the pandemic. The company also invested $100 million in audio content from “historically marginalized groups.”
But Spotify is not canceling Joe Rogan—and that could be a problem, crisis management experts tell TIME. A popular podcaster, Rogan has been accused and sanctioned for past use of an racial slur. Spotify must take a firmer stance on the podcasts that it hosts by not cutting ties to Rogan.
“It shows that they care more about profits than their reputation,” says Steven Fink, a crisis consultant and author of Crisis Communications: A Definitive Guide for Managing the Message. “That’s never a good position to be in.”
Rogan the Cash Cow
For Spotify, Rogan’s podcast is a cash cow: It reaches an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, making it the streaming service’s most popular podcast–and its millennial audience closely aligns with Spotify’s target customer.
However, social consciousness experts believe that the company should not have handled its crisis response in a way that was less stressful on long-term reputation. The first thing a company should consider when dealing with a controversy is how its various stakeholders are reacting—specifically, its customers, says Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis manager with over 25 years of experience. “As soon as primary stakeholders start getting upset, their reputation is damaged,” he says.
The traffic to Spotify Premium cancellation pages jumped 196% after an almost complete group. 300 doctors and scientistsI wrote to Spotify asking for help to prevent medical misinformation from being posted on their platform. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and several other artists demanded the removal of their music from Spotify.
Spotify’s stance over Rogan has raised questions about the company’s responsibility to police the content on its platform. Despite its exclusive deal with Rogan, the company has tended to avoid labeling itself as a publisher since it doesn’t have advance approval of his shows, and can only remove episodes if they run afoul of their content guidelines. Experts say this is evidence of the company’s concern for short-term profit rather than satisfying unhappy customers.
“Spotify is saying they don’t believe in silencing someone who expresses a different point of view,” says Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting and author of Make difficult decisions. “But they don’t just give a platform to anyone who wants it—they give a platform to people who are able to make money for them.”
“A Token Response”
The gambit hasn’t paid off for Spotify, crisis experts warn, and now the company must make a clear and decisive choice between keeping Rogan on its podcast service or supporting public safety and health. Choosing between stakeholders won’t be an easy decision for a company like Spotify, they say, but executives should let their values guide the way. “Do they want to be known as a company that forgives Joe Rogan and supports anti-vaxxers?” Fink asks. “Or do they want to be known as a company that protects its customer base?”
Pliner states that leaders who are able to answer these questions and look at how they relate to their ethical context, job responsibilities, and morals will be the most successful. “You have to realize that there is no way to make everyone happy,” he says. “Instead of trying, and thereby making no one happy, the alternative is to figure out what we really stand for and what we won’t stand for.”
Spotify’s commitment of $100 million to socially conscious programming, for example, represents a step in the right direction as a value-driven crisis response measure, crisis gurus say. But the way it was announced—just days after the company defended Rogan’s right to free speech—and the optics of committing to an amount equal to what it pays Rogan, made the gesture difficult for some customers to interpret.
“The fact that it’s the same dollar figure that they’re paying Rogan for exclusive rights to his content only makes it more offensive,” says Bryan Reber, a professor in crisis communication leadership and public relations at the University of Georgia. “One guy gets $100 million for his content while many others from historically marginalized communities have to share that amount. It’s not a tit for tat situation—it seems forced and insincere.”
Bernstein concurs: “It would have been a different story if they gave $1 billion to socially conscious programming,” he says. “But this is a token response.”
Others initiatives such as the addition of a content warning for COVID-19 Podcasts might be smart legal and public relation moves by Spotify experts, but they don’t do much to change the Rogan controversy, which seemed easy to avoid. It is important for businesses to have a long-term strategic plan that allows them the ability to respond rapidly in times of crisis.
“[Spotify] shouldn’t have been blind-sided by this, but they appear to have been caught off-guard and ill-prepared for such a controversy,” Reber says.