Over the past few years, our work at Sleeping Giants has reached into corners of business that no one ever anticipated. I’ve led social media campaigns that have left multinational corporations and institutions fumbling to respond, unsure of what hit them.

So it baffles me that the term “brand safety” is still pigeonholed by the advertising industry — like this definition from the Brand Safety Institute:

This list is…not going to cut it in 2020. A lot has changed since 2016. That change started taking place quietly through the flurry of activism that began after the 2016 elections. This collective work has had a massive impact on what the public believes businesses are responsible for.

With groups like ours using social media to demand corporate accountability, you have lot more to worry about than bad ad placements next year.

As we head into 2020 – a new year and an election year – there are a lot of new ways for brands to get into trouble. This time around, your internal business practices are on the table. Your financial investments are on the table. Even your business’ routine political contributions are on the table.

Wanna see all the new ways your brand could get hosed during this coming year? Let’s look some of the most notable stories that have taken place over the past 3 years.

Where Your Next Brand Safety Crisis Could Come From In 2020

Acceptable Use Policies

Brand safety in 2020 means having clear and unambiguous anti-hate acceptable use policies.

This year, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, a self-declared “free speech absolutist” defended providing DDOS protection services to 8Chan, a popular extremist website that mass shooters were using to post their killer manifestos. Cloudflare’s “free speech” policy, he claimed, meant that 8Chan was covered.

Except there was no way he could possibly defend this policy anymore. 8Chan had been involved in three mass shootings by now. It was clear to everybody that Cloudflare was directly enabling mass murderers.

After facing intense pressure from social media, bad press and likely, his investors, Prince ended up backtracking. He banned 8Chan.

The “free speech” policy became a real liability for Cloudflare. Customers were angry that Cloudflare couldn’t keep its word. The backlash to their inconsistency was severe enough that Cloudflare listed it as a business risk in their pre-IPO filing.

The Takeaway

If you run a tech company, one of the most critical things you can do to keep your brand safe is to have a clear set of rules around who doesn’t belong on your platform.

Whether it’s in the form of Community Standards or ToS, having rules in place empowers your team to quickly remove bad actors on your platform without looking like they’re “playing God.”

Think of these as house rules that exist that you can use to quickly make decisions, but also help you communicate these decisions to the public. That way you can point to them and say “These are the rules! We’re just following them.”

Whatever you do, don’t *not* have rules. And don’t flip flop in public.

Clients and Client Projects

Brand safety in 2020 means choosing clients that don’t undermine your mission or employee values.

It’s been a banner year for activist employees — and that trend will continue in 2020.

This year, GitHub employees tried persuading their leadership to drop their ICE contracts. When that went nowhere, they began resigning one by one. Several announced their resignations during its annual conference, GitHub Universe, for maximum PR impact.

Wayfair employees led a company-wide walkout this June, demanding their company stop providing ICE facilities with furniture. They made headlines across the nation while their leadership sputtered and yes, offered to make charitable donations.

Ogilvy employees confronted their CEO about their company’s secret contracts with Customs & Border Patrol. They later leaked a transcript of the meeting.

The Takeaway

Tech workers have shown their willingness to speak out against clients or client work they consider immoral. They’re willing to cause internal disputes, organize public walkouts, leak to the press and even leave their jobs over it.

This may be bad for your brand, but it’s toxic for your employer branding. People want to be proud of the company they work for. They want to know their leadership respects them and can b honest with them. Becoming a toxic brand can lose you access to top talent.

If you can defend your clients to your employees at a company-wide/all-hands meeting, you’re mostly fine. If you find yourself offering to make cash donations to offset your questionable work, you’re in trouble.


Brand safety in 2020 means entering partnerships that align with your business mission and values.

Last year the survivors of the Parkland High School shooting rallied together and demanded that companies drop their partner discounts with the NRA. Almost overnight, being associated with the NRA became highly toxic. Most companies ended their NRA partnerships within days.

But FedEx did not, claiming that the NRA was simply one of one of “hundreds of alliances” they work with. It was remarkably tone deaf. That response sparked a new boycott: #BoycottFedEx.

The Takeaway

It’s impossible for me to say what kind of damage this did to FedEx. But six months after they defended their NRA partnership, they quietly dropped the NRA, claiming it wasn’t bringing in enough revenues.

That may be true, but that initial decision also had brand consequences for FedEx. When they chose to continue their relationship with the NRA, they pitted themselves against a coalition of activist groups and public figures that would likely never cooperate with FedEx again. No one wants to be associated with the company that stood up for gun nuts after a school shooting.

If you’re partnered with a brand that is harming your customers or community, know that those communities will not forget.


Brand safety in 2020 means being able to justify who and what you invest your funds into.

Michigan State University found themselves under fire for investing their multi-million endowment fund with Renaissance Technologies.

It became a massive brand safety issue overnight, when a Buzzfeed investigation found that Renaissance Tech’s CEO Robert Mercer was funding Cambridge Analytica and white supremacist groups. He was using the billions he had made off his clients to undermine democracy.

Michigan State was one of their biggest clients. At Sleeping Giants, we posted contact information of every university trustee. Students and alumni launched petitions and began writing in.

It became a major headache for the university. Michigan State ultimately refused to drop Renaissance Technologies. But here’s a curveball: Robert Mercer stepped down as CEO.

The Takeaway

It matters where you’re getting your money from and where it’s going. Brand safe investing is becoming more relevant in this fractured times because it’s evidence of what you really support.

This year alone, activist groups successfully got every major bank to end loans to private prisons in the U.S. Even the famously unresponsive Bank of America. It speaks volumes to how sensitive even the most powerful companies are to toxic brand associations.

Political campaign contributions

Brand safety in 2020 means contributing to candidates or policies your company that don’t undermine your values and employees.

Don’t do what Google did in the last election cycle.

Last year, investigative journalist Judd Legum dug up some shocking news: Google gave Mississippi Senate candidate Cindy Hyde Smith a $5000 campaign contribution.

Now, Google gives to a lot of candidates regardless of political party. But they made this particular contribution after she had made pro-lynching comments and expressed her support for the Confederacy.

It turned into a highly embarrassing issue for Google, which ended up asking Hyde-Smith for a refund. Of course, she refused. Too late!

The Takeaway

How do I put this? Don’t contribute to political candidates before you’ve vetted them and know exactly what they’re up to. Facebook and Google have already said they don’t plan to take down fake news and false political claims.

That means you’re going to have to be extra careful that you’re not funding political candidates who are purposefully lying, engaging in hateful or racist rhetoric or promoting obvious falsehoods like anti-vaxxing.

No one’s going to begrudge you for your political views. Just try not to accidentally fund some of the batshit candidates out there this year.

What do you think?

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