It’s time for comms to get serious about ‘cancel culture’

It’s time for comms to get serious about ‘cancel culture’

Tim Williams

Tim Williams

Dear Reader,

I write to you today with one thing in mind: setting the record straight on ‘cancel culture’ and establishing why the comms industry must finally get to grips with it.

Now, before we proceed, we must first define ‘cancel culture’. It is the term used to describe the public denouncing of the behaviour or beliefs of a person, group, or business via online platforms and the act of calling for others to acknowledge and engage with them no longer.

This has become common in the world of entertainment. You may remember Taylor Swift famously being cancelled by Kim Kardashian in 2016, for example. The cancel culture phenomenon has since spread to politics and, increasingly, to call out businesses.

It’s important to clarify that I am not seeking to justify or validate cancel culture when used as a weapon towards public figures. Far from it – being the recipient of vitriol wielded by thousands of angry, possibly threatening strangers sounds more comparable with a scene from Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers than it does almost all facets of a modern, sophisticated society.

However, where companies are concerned, does cancel culture serve a purpose? In my view, yes.

This isn’t new – it’s evolution of feedback

The reason my stance differs for companies is because feedback is, and should always be, an important part of business. The way that I see it, if you have a group of people telling you what you’re doing wrong and why they’re not doing business with you, that’s a blessing. Compare it with customers and prospects who walk away silently, and you have no qualitative or quantitative evidence for why sales are down, or revenue isn’t growing as you’d planned for. At least you can make use of the feedback and take action to address the issues you’re being called out for.

It’s easy to dismiss this feedback, though, and you wouldn’t be the only one who does. Some senior comms professionals attribute online cancel culture feedback to bored keyboard warriors. Analyse that theory for a second, however, and it’s irrational. If that were the case, brands may as well dismiss platforms like Glassdoor, where negative feedback is common; but they’re not – instead, many brands are working hard to advance their cultures and improve their values to attract top talent and future-proof their operations.

I appreciate my use of the term ‘keyboard warrior’ was vague there. The reality is that it is a broad term. The use of such a term to describe groups of people who have never met, from different backgrounds and countries, who are of different ages, and who have different beliefs and interests, is absurd and we must stop using it. The only reason we do use it is because it’s easier to quickly lump dissenting voices into one category with a name that has a negative connotation, than it is to deal with the issue they’re complaining about. In the business world, the easy option is rarely the correct one.

Why would I/we be cancelled?

Now that we’ve addressed who the complainants are, let’s assess what the complaints hinge on. Over the past two years, cancel culture in the business world has flared up around several core issues: gender equality, race, workplace culture, climate change, and recent responses to COVID-19, among others. For example, consider this year’s boycott of Facebook by more than 1,000 companies as part of the #StopHateForProfit movement organised by civil rights groups and the global walkout by Google’s employees over allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018. These are social, ethical, and moral matters.

Clearly, the public is demanding more of businesses than in the past. Previously, a business’ purpose was dictated by the value and return they showed shareholders. Today, as highlighted by the Davos Manifesto 2020, a company’s purpose is to “Engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation… In creating such value, a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders”. Their responsibility goes beyond shareholders and must satisfy employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and society at large, to create a purpose-driven kind of capitalism.

Failing to understand and cater to this will be to our detriment as comms professionals and the businesses we represent.

How to get to grips with cancel culture

The test of having acknowledged the threat that cancel culture poses to a business is not just being aware that the threat exists, but in taking action to analyse where the company could be called out and taking steps to mitigate that potential and/or prepare for it occurring. With that in mind, what comms strategy do you have in place for if it happens tomorrow to the company you work with or for? How prepared are you?

The likelihood of this happening to you tomorrow, I appreciate, may appear low. It’s all relative though – I suspect for the 77 years it was operating prior to this year’s race protests, the manufacturer of rice products formerly named Uncle Ben’s thought similarly. The company has since updated its brand to Ben’s Original following criticism over racial stereotyping.

This is one example of many that I could have chosen. The example isn’t the point though – what we as comms professionals must accept is our capability to manage the threat of cancel culture to the businesses we work with and for, our responsibility to encourage and inspire those businesses to evolve so they’re no long worthy of cancel culture attacks, and our duty to satisfy all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

There are a few different factors to consider here, so let’s break them down:

1. “Our capability to manage the threat of cancel culture to the businesses we work with and for”. This refers to our role as the creators and builders of reputations. The potential impact of being called out in cancel culture is a result of more than one issue. And it’s the difference between a group of protesters being angry and boycotting long-term and being disappointed and returning once the issue is fixed.

What’s critical for comms professionals is to cover all bases. We can’t just project our positives – we have to employ effective employee comms, internal comms, media relations, influencer relations, leadership comms, and so on, to ensure every stakeholder holds the companies we work with or for in high regard. That way, if/when the issue flares up, they have credit in the bank with stakeholders and the threat is minimised and lasts for as short a duration as is possible while the issue is addressed.

2. “Our responsibility to encourage and inspire those businesses to evolve so they’re no long worthy of cancel culture attacks”. Managing the threat of cancel culture through communications activities is one thing, but we also have a responsibility to encourage leadership to drive decision making that tackles any issues we foresee as a threat. This means helping to drive real change, not simply release a statement that papers over the cracks once the complaints begin.

3. “Our duty to satisfy all stakeholders, not just shareholders”. This is the outcome of our combined efforts from those first two factors. If we manage the threat of cancel culture and ensure the businesses that we work with take action to ensure they aren’t exposed to it, we can positively engage all stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation.

As all the companies referred to above have found, businesses are under more scrutiny and failing to satisfy all stakeholders has consequences in the cancel culture era. As comms professionals, we all must get to grips with what that means, the risks posed, and the importance of taking action. Otherwise, there is a direct impact on reputations and the bottom line.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Williams

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