Trust Is the Core Issue in Instagram PR Controversy

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This week’s Instagram flap once again shows how quickly a crisis can escalate when a company is perceived to have crossed a social mores line.

After reports circulated around news sites and the Internet that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) essentially considered your photos its photos—and therefore could use or even sell them without your permission—scores of indignant users reportedly dropped the service.

Here’s what got people so riled in the new privacy policy update:

“[y]ou agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

That wording seemed to indicate that Instagram had the right to sell photos to third parties at will, and then pocket the money.

The reaction was swift and angry. Instagram quickly went into crisis mode and issued a clarification. Turns out it was all a big misunderstanding due to poor communication and Instagram does not plan to sell your photos after all. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said the company is working on revised language to make it more clear what will happen with users’ photos.

According to a Chicago Tribune story, Mr. Systrom also stated, “language that indicated your photos could be used in advertisements will be removed from the terms completely.”

Instagram was smart to jump on this quickly, issue a clarification and also say it is listening to feedback, will fix mistakes and clear up the confusion. So, gold star for taking this seriously and saying the right things in a timely manner.

But I have to wonder about a couple of things that still bother me.

First, how could language like “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos…” get out in the first place? There should have been red flags everywhere. Wasn’t there at least one person in authority at Instagram who saw that wording and thought, “Gee, I wonder if this might create a bit of controversy?”

Maybe there was someone who raised the issue, but senior management chose to ignore it. We may never know.

Which leads me to my second point: Instagram surely must know that most people don’t take the time to read all the details of policy updates. And that make me wonder if what was really happening here was that management was trying to slip this through and got caught.

Whether or not the wording was intentional, trust has been broken with many thousands of Instagramers, and it will take more than a policy clarification to restore it.

The best way to avoid problems like this is to identify and handle them before they ever get out of the barn.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.

photo credit: phauly via photopin cc