Robinhood’s PR Crisis Shows Why Every Company Needs a Culture of Content
On the morning of January 28, I was doing the exact same thing as most plugged-in millennials: drinking coffee and texting friends about the insane Reddit-fueled surge of “meme stocks” like Gamestop, AMC, and Blackberry.
Most of my friends had bought a few shares of the meme stocks on Robinhood. But an hour before the markets opened, we noticed something strange: Robinhood wouldn’t let us buy any more. We could only sell. There was no explanation why.
Baffled, all we could do was turn to Twitter and Reddit, where accusations ran wild. The prevailing theory presumed that Robinhood was in bed with the hedge funds, restricting regular traders so hedge funds could avoid the disaster of their short positions.
As that day stretched on with no explanation, this theory became fact in the eyes of the internet. Users bombed the app with 100,000 one-star reviews. Thousands announced they were switching to competitors like WeBull. And everyone from AOC to Ja Rule questioned the company’s integrity. When Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev finally spoke to the media that night, he offered a confusing explanation.
As the situation unraveled, it was painful to watch. Disaster could have been avoided if Robinhood had a stronger culture of content.
The tragedy of Robinhood’s response
It turns out Robinhood had a good reason for limiting trades. As users owned more and more stock of companies like Gamestop, AMC, and Blackberry, Robinhood’s required clearinghouse deposits rose tenfold. If the market trends continued, Robinhood wouldn’t have enough cash to meet these requirements, so it stopped certain trades.
Disaster could have been avoided if Robinhood had a stronger culture of content.
Barely anyone heard this reasonable explanation. That’s because the company struggled to communicate this clearly to customers until the following Monday—four days later—when it sent an email explaining what happened. The “Robinhood is corrupt” narrative had already taken hold. Let’s look at a quick timeline of events:
Thursday morning: No explanation as rumors ran rampant.
Thursday night: Robinhood sends out an email to customers with a garbled legalese explanation. (More on that below.)
Friday: Robinhood publishes a clear, well-written blog post that explains why they had to halt trading. But the company only tweets it out, instead of emailing it to customers or surfacing the post in the app.
Monday: Finally pushed out a clear, well-written email explaining what happened and also promote the blog post explainer in the app.
As a content strategist, I’d seen this problem many times before. It’s not that the marketing and comms team sucks. It’s that the company lacked a strong culture of content.
The phrase “culture of content” may sound squishy, but it’s incredibly important. Here are four lessons we can learn from Robinhood’s mishap.
1. Get in the habit of publishing timely content
Robinhood invests in content. They have a solid library of investment content with titles modeled after long-tail search inquires to bring in SEO traffic. But to establish a culture of content, you need to be skilled at more than just publishing evergreen content.
Hire at least one person with real journalism experience, and invest in timely content that helps your audience understand how changes in your industry affect them. These stories add spice to your evergreen content mix. It gives people a reason to come to you when news breaks. And perhaps most importantly, it equips you to publish content in minutes or hours—not days—when things go haywire, written by a journalist who’s trained in simplifying complex topics so everyone can understand.
2. Set clear rules for working with legal and compliance
Given how fast the story spread, Thursday night was too long for Robinhood to email customers with an explanation. But a big reason that email failed to change the narrative is because it sounded like BS to a lot of people:
This was a temporary decision made to best continue serving you, and was not an easy one to make. We know it’s led to frustration and confusion, and wanted to provide some clarity.
As a brokerage firm, we have many financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits. Some of these requirements fluctuate based on volatility in the markets and can be substantial in the current environment. These requirements exist to protect investors and the markets and we take our responsibilities to comply with them seriously, including through the measures we have taken today.
My best guess is a well-constructed explanation from the marketing team got put through the car wash of the legal team, and an unproductive message came out the other side. This underscores why it’s so important for marketers—especially those in financial services—to have clear rules of the road with legal and compliance.
3. Develop a thoughtful channel strategy
By Friday, Robinhood also managed to publish a well-written blog post explaining what happened. It posted the explanation on Twitter but didn’t email it to customers. Crucially, it didn’t promote the content to customers through its app until Monday.
This underscores the importance of having a strong channel and distribution strategy, and knowing how and where to reach your customers as quickly and effectively as possible. As soon as Robinhood had a solid explainer in place on Friday, it should have pushed it out via email and the app to ensure as many people as possible saw it.
4. Offer comms a seat at the table
Your marketing and comms can’t be left out of the loop when disaster strikes. I have no idea if this is what happened with Robinhood, but given the lack of communication with customers, I suspect it might be the case.
In a world where narratives about your company can form in minutes, the leader of your comms team needs to be informed from the jump. CEOs who consider this an afterthought are asking for problems.
Narratives about your company can form in minutes.
It’s for this reason that I struggle to fully blame Robinhood’s marketing and comms team. Most of the team, including their CMO, has only been there a few months. A culture of content takes a long time to build—especially when the CEO may not be inviting you into the room—or Zoom—where it happens.
Robinhood will come out of this okay. It remains an addictive, intuitive app and the easiest way to buy cryptocurrency. It had the cache to get a $1 billion bridge loan from its investors on Thursday night. Many of the users who deleted the app have likely come back. But not every company will be so lucky, and like Robinhood, they may not know how important a culture of content is until they need it.Image by Nataliya Komarova