Crisis communications: cracking cancel culture

April 7, 2022

Emily Ellis

Last month, members of our team attended P World’s Crisis Communication Bootcamp, alongside other communications professionals from multiple industries. While crisis communications is an area, we, as an agency, know well – as lifelong learners, we value keeping informed on this dynamic and essential skill. One important emerging influence is “cancel culture” and we are eager to share some insights on this from our Bootcamp experience.

Merriam-Webster defines cancel culture as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”

Despite its seemingly recent awareness, cancel culture has been entrenched in our society for decades. The accessibility of the internet and the rise of social media has created growing forums for public boycotts and demands of accountability. Cancel culture has evolved to change the way we communicate and how we hold people accountable. And in many cases, they DO need to be held accountable.

The weaponization of social media

Social media’s power, popularity and uncontrollable virality has revealed unimaginable disruptions and hostility towards transgressors. This has illuminated the longstanding injustices deeply rooted in society and demands accountability from those who formerly may have been immune to the consequences of actions or comments (i.e. public figures).

In 2020, cancel culture dominated social media platforms as the pandemic, tied with ongoing societal and political inequities, increased. The murder of George Floyd and the resulting rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement demanded social change and accountability.

Social media’s ability to rapidly issue information and spur groups and movements with shared beliefs or actions, has both positive and perverse intentions and impacts. The more devastating results can lead to (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Boycotting or ‘cancelling’ a person or brand
  • Misinformation & disinformation campaigns being circulated and/or escalated
  • Radicalization & recruitment of a particular organization or cause

Navigating cancel culture in Corporate Canada

Every organization and brand is susceptible to being “cancelled.” From leadership scandals, product failures, data breaches, unethical operations or a marketing campaign gone wrong – organizations can no longer hide from the public eye. Responding to all relevant stakeholders in a timely and proactive manner, and taking decisive action when needed, is the deciding factor for recovery. Organizations have been canceled on both social and mainstream media for simply not responding in a meaningful way.

Organizations need to consider the immense risk associated with staying silent during the early stages of an issue or societal boycott. While some business leaders justify silence as the best way to avoid continued threats and rejection from the community, the reality is that silence sends a “we don’t care” message and opens the door to misinformation and misperception. The public and stakeholders expect organizations to appropriately address wrong-doings and commit to enduring change. Research shows that well-managed Crisis Communications not only affects perception, but also the bottom line: 64 per cent of consumers will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.

Don’t fall victim to “woke-washing”

To gain public acceptance or remain attractive to audiences, organizations may be tempted to market gestures such as adopting progressive values, supporting political or social movements or launching purpose-driven campaigns without taking any real action. But the public is not so easily fooled. According to a 2019 study, 56 per cent of consumers believe too many brands are making empty gestures just to sell more products.

Dubbed “woke-washing,” false actions threaten brands’ credibility and trust, causing reputational damage and welcoming added criticism and scrutiny. Woke-washing can also include:

  • Pink-washing: using LGBTQ2S+ issues as a marketing strategy
  • Green-washing: spending more time and money on environmental marketing or messaging than minimizing environmental impact

Transition to an ‘accountable culture’

At the outset of a boycott or public shaming incident, issue an apology that is impactful and authentic. To support the apology, clearly demonstrate that the company recognizes its mistake and is listening and committed to continue learning.

Take a HOT approach – be Honest, Open and Transparent. Organizations fail when they issue an apology without action. Understand why you are sorry and how to keep the action from happening again – then create an action plan and stick to it.

To transition from a cancel culture to an accountability culture, apologies should follow a framework that involves:

  • Separating intent from impact
  • Focusing on listening, rather than defending
  • Realizing this is not about you, but that recovery starts with you
  • Recognizing the issue as an opportunity to grow and do better

Moving forward

In the normal course of business, stuff happens.

Cancel culture is just one new threat. The best way to protect an organization from damaging consequences is with preparation. A comprehensive and regularly refreshed crisis communication plan will make all the difference when a company is in the hot seat.

You wouldn’t buy the fire extinguisher the moment the fire ignites, would you?

Have a question? Interested in finding out more?