how to navigate the storm of cancel culture?
The concept of cancellation culture originates from the slang term “cancel”, referring to a breakup between people. More specifically, cancel culture is defined as an act of cancelling or boycotting a public figure who has expressed questionable opinions or had offensive behaviour documented on social media. Another definition refers to cancel culture as an extension of ”callout culture,” in which the public urges certain celebrities to delete or withdraw posts.
So how can brands and individuals weather the storm of cancel culture?
The idea of cancellation started to become more and more widespread as a way of reacting – jokingly or seriously – not only to friends and associates but also to celebrities or (political) entities whose behaviour bordered on or crossed the line of offense. The culture of cancellation entered the field of communication dynamically following the emergence of social justice movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. Although these two originated from the US, they left and still leave an indelible imprint on the wider society, as they have managed to effectively change long-standing narratives about victims and offenders. Interestingly, according to findings from a 2020 survey of 10,093 US adults, 44% of Americans had heard of the cancellation culture movement. The largest percentage (56%), however, have heard nothing or not much about it.
The cancel culture phenomenon is a product of Web 2.0 and social media. The way in which social networking platforms are structured streamlines the way in which users communicate and the way in which information is shared. Consequently, a constant communication flow develops on social media, through which users can raise and respond to claims, ideas and questions. But what happens if the message is misinterpreted or not accepted by the audiences?
how to cancel ‘cancel culture’?
There are ways of managing such situations effectively. Initially, it would be advisable for the company concerned to contact a PR agency and also align internally on the next steps. Depending on the message and the degree of expansion, appropriate actions are then planned to mitigate any negativity. A press release on behalf of the company acknowledging the issue and offering a proper explanation is one of the basic and primary steps. If the message concerns a company decision, it is advisable to combine it with a retraction or a corrected restatement of the decision.
For example, in 2021, a well-known food delivery company announced the modification of its employee contracts, causing a huge online stir with social media users calling for the cancellation of the brand. The next day, the company issued a press release to clarify that the initial statement had no blackmail character while also underlining the organisation’s well-established principles. Indeed, following the management’s decision to convert the contracts to open-ended, the negative hashtags gradually disappeared, and the audience no longer felt the urge to call out the company in the comment section.
Focusing attention on the values the brand stands for, in conjunction with its contribution to the respective industry, is another axis within which communication can move. This way, the public is reminded of the company’s ethos and the way it conducts business.
In case the message concerns a product, issuing a well-structured press release is crucial. If the product is defective or harmful, the release should acknowledge the problem and offer a thorough explanatory statement. If necessary, brands may recall the product and promptly offer a replacement for the defective goods, while others might reach out to the affected consumer with a discount coupon. In both cases, concise public statements or interviews with company officials can help effectively deal with any backlash.
the power of words and actions
Generally speaking, the most effective way of navigating the storm of cancel culture is for the company to take a step back, acknowledge the issue without panicking and manage the situation communicatively with clarity and cohesion. The messages communicated by the organisation or the individual should always be impartial and direct, without leaving any room for misinterpretation. Sensitive or questionable issues that affect the community at large should be avoided.
Consequently, trust and a transparent communication flow both between the client and the agency as well as between the agency and the journalists are paramount.
As Haskell pinpoints, cancellation culture serves as a form of checks and balances, reminding those with social capital that their value to broader audiences greatly depends on how their actions align with what the public deems right or wrong. As Charity Hudley put it, cancellation “is a way of recognising that we don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality, but as individuals, we can have power beyond measure.” And this is the power that companies can use to communicate their messages with clarity and impact.