Developing Immunity to Cancel Culture

There is nothing fair and equitable about the so-called “cancel culture.” Let’s get that out of the way right from the start. That said, it helps no one to complain about whether or not something is fair. We have to work with the world as it is, not how we want it to be. Regardless of how brand communicators, comms professionals, influencers, and PR pros feel about the sometimes knee-jerk mob mentality that drives “cancel culture,” it’s our job as communicators to protect from the consequences the best way we can.

Inoculating a brand or personality from the ravages of cancel culture begins with a clear understanding that a single message promoted online is not really a single message. Think of it as a prism, or a crystal. Seen through that medium, that message can be viewed in myriad ways and from countless perspectives. And it can be chopped up, edited, and repurposed, either stripped of context or weighed down with added context. This can happen immediately after a message is published, or it might happen years – potentially even decades – after something is said, shown, or done.

Time on the internet is, to put it mildly, very malleable. And so is “truth.” Operationally, for many internet users, the simple act of seeing something online gives it a ring of truth, and communicators defending themselves or their brand from that message interpretation are already starting from behind.

Viewed through that lens, it can feel impossible to know how to properly respond when one has been targeted by the cancel culture horde. But, with a bit of careful strategizing and purposeful positioning, it’s not impossible… even if it’s not easy.

Be proactive. Before anything is said, presented, or published, look for potential tripwires or access points for activist-minded online accounts. How could what’s being communicated be sliced or manipulated to the advantage of others? Assess the risk and be sure to vet the messengers connected with that narrative – on both sides.

Settle in for the long haul. Cancel culture campaigns are rarely ever one-and-done. In many cases, they take some time to ramp up, and they won’t go away just because their negative narrative is challenged or debunked. In many cases, challenging a “cancel” attempt only gives them extra motivation to keep coming.

The best defense against this is in preventative brand maintenance. Establish connections with key markets and influencers. Earn and build the trust of the market, so that they don’t immediately believe “cancel” campaign narratives. Speak to potential audiences before the cancel crowd can. When you have a storehouse of goodwill, it’s tougher to make negative accusations stick.

And, when attacked, research the opposition before going after them. Know who they are, what they want, and why they’ve decided to come after that brand or message. Understanding their motivations will allow the comms team to better strategize when planning and implementing a response. 

Look for opportunities to be positively involved in cultural issues. This doesn’t mean looking for chances to wade into hot button issues. Instead, look for ways to build goodwill around the brand by advocating for causes a majority of your customer base supports. Continue to invest, thinking about the long-term benefits. Because, in the end, a good reputation is the best defense against cancelation.

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