BuzzFeed Buzz Kill: A Case for Brand Reputation SOS

BuzzFeed is making money and headlines. But it’s not making friends.

If BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti is a Meat Loaf fan, he might think that two out of three ain’t bad.

His investors may disagree. Because BuzzFeed is not just failing to make friends. The company is making enemies — enemies who are suing and, perhaps worse, damaging the BuzzFeed brand at a critical time in the company’s seven-year history.

Protect your brand reputation: abide by image copyright laws when sharing visuals on social media or your business blog | KOTAW Content MarketingThe legal troubles may go away. But the damage to BuzzFeed’s reputation will not only linger but worsen if someone doesn’t convince Peretti to shut up and start acting like the owner of a $200 million publishing company instead of a gunslinger at the OK Corral.

Soft Language/Tough Love

I’m appointing myself as that someone.

I’ll use gentler language — I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to “shut up” — but my message is harsh:

Mr. Peretti, your words — and the attitude they convey — will damage your reputation and your company’s bottom line more than your alleged pilfering of copyrighted photographs.

If you really think your company has a “major role to play in the coming years producing great journalism and compelling entertainment,” you need to do more than send inspirational memos to your Buzzfeed team. You need to change the message you’re sending to the world before you dash your investors’ belief that BuzzFeed is “definitely a potential billion-dollar company.”

I don’t know you, Mr. Peretti, so I don’t know if you are hurt, amused, angry or unaffected by the social media buzz surrounding allegations that you infringed on the copyrights of Kai Eiselein, who filed a $3.6 million lawsuit against BuzzFeed in June, or Rev Dan Catt, who took his complaint public Sept. 10 with the post, “10 Good Reasons BuzzFeed is Going to Pay My F*&%king Invoice for Copyright Theft.” I also don’t know precisely what prompted you to pay Catt’s invoice Sept 12. But I can guess.

Free Advice/Expensive Mistake

Because I do know a lot about the high cost of poor brand reputation management — and the intolerance investors have for anything that cuts into their profits. And, because I believe that BuzzFeed does have — to quote you — ”the potential to be a defining company” in the new age of media, I’m going to offer some free advice on how to repair your brand’s reputation:

1. Until you’re ready to apologize, stop talking

Earlier this year, you expressed a casual indifference toward copyright infringement. You were quoted in The Atlantic as saying, “I would love if every image contained some secret metadata and a way to license that image…But the practical reality is that it is pretty challenging, particularly in the web culture of animals and the images that spread on Pinterest and Tumblr.”

“Pretty challenging” or not, it’s the job of every respectable publisher to honor copyright laws. By openly stating that you can’t be bothered to deal with copyright issues, you invite criticism — and lawsuits.

And you damage your brand’s reputation. You can’t create “great journalism” without great reporters, editors and photographers. And none of them will want to work for you if you acquire a reputation for using their work — or their peers’ work — without permission.

Take a stand FOR copyright protection, and the best journalists and photojournalists will help you make BuzzFeed a highly respected news organization. Continue to show disrespect for these professionals and you will never acquire the talent you need to make the transition you seek.

2. Change the present or the past will always haunt you

In 2001, you asked Nike to customize a pair of shoes for you with the word SWEATSHOP on them, “because I wanted to remember the toil and labor of the children that made my shoes,” according to a copy of an email posted on UrbanLegends.com. When Nike refused to place your order, you asked them to “please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?”

When those emails were published 12 years ago, you sounded like an advocate of child labor protection laws. Today, those words sound hollow. Are you not profiting from the unpaid labor of photographers?

Align your actions with the words you want people to remember or they will forever remind you of the inconsistencies.

3. Get in front of the problem NOW

Don’t wait for another lawsuit or another Twitter frenzy to tarnish BuzzFeed’s reputation. If you violated copyrights, act now to make amends. Paying Catt’s invoice is a start, but a small one.

Whether you have or haven’t done anything wrong, implement a policy at BuzzFeed that honors copyright laws. Don’t use copyright-protected material of any kind without obtaining permission from the owner. Better yet, implement a policy that clearly spells out what you will pay for material — and pay it.

Make friends with journalists, and they’ll help you become a pioneer of responsible digital journalism.

Pioneers enjoy long-term profits. Cowboys die young.

What do you think? Can BuzzFeed salvage its reputation? Can Jonah Peretti brand himself as an ethical, forward-thinking news publisher? If so, what will it take? Please share your comments below.

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    Peretti needs serious help managing his brand’s reputation. But honestly, how do you go about un-jerking a jerk?? He just seems like an immature, self-absorbed slacker who has no business plan or strategy in place to sustain his company long-term.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      I don’t know about his business plan, Peter, but he has lofty ambitions — pioneering digital journalism — for someone who says quality doesn’t really matter and who takes a very relaxed stance on copyright issues.

  2. Brian J Wood says:

    WTG Katherine and this post epitomizes why sage brand reputation management needs to be a “Must Have” for entrepreneurs …as well as former entrepreneurs

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Well said, Brian. Brand reputation management has become critical in the digital age. You can’t hide your mistakes or misdeeds when criticism is only a tweet away. Thank you for joining the discussion.

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