Spotify’s Joe Rogan Controversy Isn’t Over Yet

5 minute read

Spotify needs to 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.

Following the public outcry, Spotify now finds itself at a crossroads between supporting its subscribers by moderating harmful content and chasing the most profit possible. So far, the company has tried to do 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. The wildly popular podcaster has been accused of spreading false narratives about the coronavirus, and condemned for his past use of a racial slur. By not cutting ties with Rogan, Spotify faces growing pressure to take a stronger stance about the podcasts it hosts.

“It shows that they care more about profits than their reputation,” says Steven Fink, a crisis consultant and author of Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to 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.

From a social consciousness perspective, though, experts say the company mismanaged its crisis response and should have placed a greater emphasis on its 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.

Traffic to the cancellation page for Spotify Premium spiked 196% the week after a group of nearly 300 scientists and doctors wrote a letter to Spotify asking it to step in to keep medical misinformation off their platform. Neil Young later demanded that his music be removed from the platform, followed by Joni Mitchell and a handful of other artists.

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. But this reasoning, experts say, is further evidence that the company cares more about short-term profits than satisfying upset 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 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 says the most effective leaders he advises are those who answer questions like these by looking at the intersection of their morals, ethical context and job responsibilities. “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.”

Other initiatives like adding a content warning to COVID-19 podcasts may be prudent legal and public relations moves for Spotify, experts say, but do little to move the needle on a Rogan controversy that seemed easily preventable. Companies should always have a long-term strategy in place that allows them to take swift action when a crisis inevitably does arise.

“[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.

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