Published on November 9, 2020, at 3:00 p.m.
by Katey Quinn.
Of all the crises that today’s public relations crisis counselors may be called in to handle, perhaps nothing strikes more fear in brands and individuals than the threat of “being canceled.” Cancel culture is emerging as one of the most ubiquitous and misunderstood byproducts of social media. Dictionary.com defines cancel culture simply as “withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.” In an era where a single tweet or post can ignite immediate controversy, the resounding public backlash that follows can be swift and difficult to defend.
Cancel culture is not a new phenomenon — just a newer expression. Society has always held public figures, brands and companies accountable for their words and actions, and current and past behaviors. However, it has not happened at the scale or magnitude enabled by social media platforms. Traditionally, the mainstream news media acted as “watchdogs” and informed the public on what to think about. But in an environment where every person can act as the media, the public has the ability to become the judge, jury and executioners of information via social media.
While public opinion matters more than ever, how does this affect communicators who specialize in managing controversies and defending the reputations of their clients?
Crisis communication counselors must evolve their strategies and tactics to address this cancelation crisis. It is not that the fundamental principles of good crisis communications management have changed as much as the speed with which it must happen and the number of channels that need to be utilized. Here are three insightful takeaways on the cancel culture crisis from two experienced crisis counselors.
Public shaming is not an effective means of creating long-lasting change
Social media gives the individual more power to speak out and be heard than ever before. More people are motivated to hold public figures, brands and companies accountable for their actions. Yet, the lines between calling a brand out for perceived “bad behavior” and online bullying have blurred.
Sam Singer, president and founder of Singer Associates Public Relations, said, “Cancel culture has been seen throughout time in different ways, but today it has become far more convenient and easier to essentially be a ‘professional hater’ and to shame and cancel someone because you either believe they did something wrong or disagree with their viewpoint.”
The swift and often unrelenting nature of cancel culture makes it extremely difficult for brands or individuals to respond to social controversies and attacks. Its one-sided nature strips its target of the opportunity for a more fair and informed exchange of public dialogue. Crisis communicators used to be able to respond to a crisis by getting the facts out and telling the story behind a crisis.
“It has become more unhealthy, dangerous and a bigger threat to freedom of expression and individual First Amendment rights than ever before because of the advent of social media. Anyone with a computer or cellphone can pile on if they dislike something or decide someone ought to be shamed,” Singer emphasized.
Once a brand, company or individual is under fire by millions piling on via social media, it makes changing the perspective of those millions extremely difficult. In the past, it was easier to respond to a personal attack when that attack was coming from just one channel or medium.
“Even if someone has done something wrong, it’s not a healthy way to bring about change,” said Singer. “Many times, we see corporations, individuals and celebrities do things that we disagree with. Rather than shaming that person, I think offering up thoughts with different viewpoints in a nonconfrontational and educational manner is the smarter thing to do if you want to effectuate change.”
The most difficult thing when dealing with backlash according to Singer is “to not mentally or physically have your client collapse under the volumes of hateful posts. It is very hard for people to see things being said about them that are hateful, wrong, condemning and, essentially, bullying.”
Preparing for backlash and potential cancelation is fundamental to strategic planning in this era
The convenience and immediacy of social media make cancel culture all the more powerful. Those characteristics afford companies and individuals little reaction and reflection time.
“There is almost no time to think. It is now more important than ever to anticipate problems and be ready for your response to them. It is more important than ever to have gone through crisis planning and identify the problems that you and your organization are susceptible to. You don’t know when a video will appear or a negative customer interaction,” said Dr. Bryan Reber, the head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Georgia.
The speed at which a brand or individual is expected to respond is almost instantaneous. When an audience is sitting back waiting for a response, that reply has to be prevailing and impactful.
“How am I going to respond? Am I going to admit any wrongdoing? Am I going to change policies or actions in response to improve behavior moving forward, or am I instead going to blame the people who are canceling me and fight against them?” Dr. Reber emphasized.
Crisis communicators must help companies and high-profile individuals have a plan in place that will enable them to respond and tame the possibility of social media backlash. Cancel culture requires companies to proactively anticipate what might cause them to be canceled. Companies must carefully weigh every one of their actions and messages and examine all that they do through the lens of diverse perspectives.
The best thing to do is tell the whole story
One of the greatest challenges that brands and individuals face when responding to a cancelation crisis is creating a neutral forum or space for engaging in an open discussion where critics can hear different sides of an issue. Social media provides the platform for an open dialogue, yet it also evokes the fear of saying the so-called “wrong or incorrect thing.” In 2020, 62% reported that the current political climate prevented them from speaking on certain issues that they believe in, both Democrats and Republicans. The best way to hold brands accountable is to call them out while also hearing them out.
“You’re going to achieve change through thoughtful persuasion and by making people think about their actions. Overwhelming anger and public shaming accomplish nothing other than the satisfaction of some anonymous person essentially batting one over the head with a verbal baseball bat,” said Singer.
While cancel culture is effective at making the person or company pause to take a look into the matter, it is not as effective in solving a problem or changing a future behavior. There has to be room for the response to be heard and critiqued without permanent, long-term damage.
“Realistically, the best thing companies can do is continue to tell their story. Explain the facts, do so in a reasonable, rational and non-emotional manner whether an individual or corporation, and not be cowed by the overwhelming bullying and negativity of mobs,” said Singer.
A book by Jon Ronson titled “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” contains a quote that could not summarize the phenomena of cancel culture better: “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It is all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”
Crisis communicators must be prepared to strategize new ways to guide clients through backlash — and the most forward-thinking communicators will emerge as the heroes. For many companies and high-profile individuals in today’s drama-hungry social media landscape, it is not just a matter of whether you might one day be the victim of cancel culture, it is when.