Op-Ed: It’s a Bad Idea to Ban Customers From Recording Videos

 
 
With videos of bad business practices routinely going viral, it might be tempting to prohibit customers from recording their surroundings. But banning cameras is the wrong way to go, says Benjamin Edelman.
 
 
by Benjamin G. Edelman

Consumers delight in using smartphones to record their experiences and surroundings, but for businesses, such devices present tricky challenges. Suppose a customer encounters a hair in her food, a spill in an aisle, or a rude clerk. Historically, these problems were easily resolved on the spot. Now, the evidence is quickly posted to social media for the world to critique—potentially blown out of proportion.

“If a customer … feels strongly enough to make a recording and perhaps tell friends, that’s a problem a smart retailer would want to fix”

Indeed, many retailers have policies purporting to disallow photography or recordings. The strategy has superficial appeal: It protects employees and other customers who often don’t want to be captured for posterity. And if such a policy even slightly reduces the likelihood of a disastrous viral video, many retailers would count that as a plus.

I suggest, though, that a ban is the wrong way to go. Three key concerns are:

  • There’s little evidence that recording bans actually work. As a practical matter, preventing recordings means banning customers who are obviously taking photos and videos. But customers who want to avoid attention can be discreet—smartphones are easily concealed.
  • A banning policy often itself causes escalation of a conflict. “The video that this store doesn’t want you to see!” is that much more likely to get attention. And when store staff enforce a ban by calling security or even the police, their involvement raises the stakes and provides that much more basis for others to be interested.
  • Banning recordings portends a dangerous tension with customers. If a customer thinks there’s something wrong, and feels strongly enough to make a recording and perhaps tell friends, that’s a problem a smart retailer would want to fix. In the short run, it may be easier to sweep the problem under the rug than to find a real solution. But if customers have the choice to go elsewhere, companies do well to keep them satisfied.

Lessons from United Airlines

For a high-tension situation gone terribly wrong, look no further than United Airlines’ April 2017 effort to remove passenger David Dao from his assigned seat. Five passenger videos show what happened in painful detail: When Dao wouldn’t leave, United personnel summoned airport security officers who forcibly removed him—and filed false police reports claiming, by all indications incorrectly, that Dao had been violent. United suffered in the court of public opinion—and in litigation too, as Dao’s attorney extracted what was by all indications a sizable settlement.

A customer with a camera can be a good thing, too. (Credit: ParkerDeen)

Interestingly, United had long published an “electronic devices policy” on a little-noticed page on its website—but that policy did nothing to help the airline prevent or resolve the Dao situation. First, one might question whether that policy is in fact binding as a matter of law. By all indications it’s really just a web page, not part of a passenger’s contract with United. (In a request for rulemaking, I recently asked the Department of Transportation to rule this and similar policies invalid and unenforceable.)

But even if the policy was binding, it wouldn’t have helped United: Once the video was out, the airline’s blunder was apparent and the damage done. Nor could United reasonably have used the policy to prevent passengers from making recordings: Telling customers “put down your phones or we’ll arrest you” would have invited concealed recordings and even sharper public outcry.

Although retailers seem to enjoy much better relationships with their customers than do airlines, they still can learn from United’s experience. The smart move is to avoid the problems—bad service, snarly employees, dangerous conditions—that motivate customers to pull out their devices and hit “Record.” Trying to impose a harsh anti-recording policy won’t help when a company needs it most.

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