What Corporate Communicators Need to Know About Cancel Culture

October 04, 2023
By iQ Staff
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From the beginning of civilization, humans have publicly shamed those deemed to be moral transgressors. Thanks to social media, present-day affronted groups now have a global platform to amplify their grievances and drum up support, sometimes resulting in an individual or company being “canceled.”

Canceling refers to the social phenomenon of withdrawing support for something or someone because you disagree with them, rendering them effectively eliminated from the dialogue with highly diminished relevance (if any). Sometimes the cancellations are quick and temporary, but more often than not, recovering from a cancellation or managing a cancellation episode entails a significant investment of time and effort in communications and reputation management.


“We find ourselves in an era of 'cancel culture,' where online backlash and calls for boycotts can torpedo a brand in an afternoon.”


Accountability, justice and equality have gained so much momentum in the popular zeitgeist that individuals and groups, regardless of stature or sway, are now regularly taking it upon themselves to monitor the behavior of high-profile individuals and corporations, and hold them accountable. In an even more common scenario, the cultural climate has become so polarized that people expect their favorite brands to consistently ascribe to a strictly defined identity. Any deviation can be perceived as a betrayal and result in an “outing” of the brand as failing to be true to its loyal supporters. We find ourselves in an era of “cancel culture,” where online backlash and calls for boycotts can torpedo a brand in an afternoon.


Significant and long-term risks

Being canceled can harm a corporation's revenue, profitability and market value if consumers boycott the company, or partnerships and sponsorships fall through. Furthermore, cancel culture incidents can create a hostile or uncertain work environment for employees. Employees may feel demoralized, disengaged or anxious about the impact of an employer’s cancellation on their careers, leading to decreased productivity, talent attrition and difficulty attracting new talent. Finally, cancel culture incidents can strain stakeholder relationships with investors, business partners, suppliers, regulators and community members. The perception that the corporation is not aligned with societal values or lacks ethical integrity can erode trust and shape how the corporation is perceived in the long run. If the organization is perceived as unresponsive or dismissive of societal concerns, it may struggle to rebuild trust and regain a positive reputation, impacting its brand positioning and market competitiveness.


Addressing cancel culture incidents

Navigating cancel culture requires crisis management experience and an understanding of sociology in relation to social behavior, sentiment and dynamics, along with social media trends. Your crisis team should be diverse and have the right combination of experience to tackle cancel culture incidents effectively.

Organizations must also empower their crisis team to respond swiftly. They should be able to address the concerns raised, demonstrate accountability and implement meaningful changes. Failure to handle these incidents appropriately can intensify the negative impact and prolong the crisis.


How to prevent cancellation

The following tactics can help your organization avoid a cancel culture crisis.

  1. Clearly define your values and then embrace them, internally and externally. Your organizational values are meant to stand the test of time, and provide structure and guidance even if they do not appeal to everyone. The worst thing a company can do is show support for something it believes in and then back down just because it isn’t popular among some groups.
  2. Monitor online sentiment. Stay informed about emerging issues, and gauge public opinion toward your brand and industry by monitoring online conversations.
  3. Establish a strong corporate reputation. Maintain a strong corporate reputation built on ethical practices, transparent communication and social responsibility to build a bank of goodwill you can draw upon during a crisis. A positive reputation can act as a buffer during times of controversy and make it less likely for the organization to be a target of cancel culture.
  4. Regularly assess risks. Assess your company's policies, actions and public perception quarterly to align with evolving societal expectations.
  5. Prepare for crises. Develop a crisis management plan that includes strategies for addressing cancel culture incidents. This plan should outline key messages, designate spokespersons and identify communication channels for responding to and managing crises effectively.
  6. Cultivate brand advocates. Build strong relationships with key stakeholders, including employees, customers and community members. Employees can play a vital role in defending the company's reputation during times of crisis by sharing their positive experiences and highlighting the organization's values. Likewise, external allies, such as industry associations and vendors, that can comment positively on your reputation and ethics during a crisis, are invaluable.


Biting the bullet

While the repercussions of cancellation are serious, brands need to have the courage of their convictions and remember that their corporate values are in place for a reason. In some cases, getting canceled by certain groups may be worth the negative consequences if the brand can have a positive impact on society and drive meaningful social change by taking a stand to support what is right.

Consider your organizational values carefully before making decisions that simply avoid cancellation. Your core audience will judge you based on the alignment of your actions and values rather than the opinion of the masses.


The bottom line

Cancel culture is a complex and evolving phenomenon, so it's crucial to stay informed, adapt strategies accordingly and prioritize ethical behavior, transparency and accountability. Having a diverse team with crisis communications experience and an understanding of social sentiment is critical to addressing cancel culture.


Check out our downloadable crisis communications checklist and our blog on preparing your crisis communications roadmap for more tips on crisis mitigation and management.