Surviving The PR Landscape In The Age Of Cancel Culture

The Playbook Used by PR Bulldog Awards’ the Best New PR Agency of 2023

By Marin Richardson| March 25, 2024

What You'll Learn...

Knowing when to speak up

*The following information is contentious. Please note it’s for the BBW community, for the purpose of example – between us, as I speak candidly about awkward business mishaps you may experience. My examples are not meant to express my opinions, beliefs, or values. 

Did you know that I support:

  • Biden… not Trump.
  • A woman’s right to choose… but not trans-rights.
  • Gay marriage… but not gay stories/books in schools.

Actually, none of this is true. 

Don’t cancel me because the essence of what I care about is not today’s topic.

Instead, we will talk about when to speak up and how your voice and decisions impact your brand as a business owner.

You already know that statements like the ones above can crash your reputation in minutes.  But never taking a stance on anything is a missed opportunity to join society’s most important conversations! 

In today’s hyper-connected world, where social media reigns supreme, businesses navigate a new and often treacherous terrain: Cancel culture.  This phenomenon, where public opinion rapidly turns against a brand or individual due to perceived missteps, poses a unique challenge to business owners and their PR and communications teams. 

What is ‘cancel culture’?

Cancel culture, a phrase that became universally popular in 2019, represents a form of boycott or public shaming that occurs primarily on social media. It often starts from a perceived social, ethical, or political misstep by a brand or its founders/leadership.

In the digital age of virality, where information spreads rapidly, the impact of cancel culture is immediate and memorable. For business owners, this means a sudden loss of customer loyalty, a tarnished brand image, and in severe cases, significant financial losses.

The key to understanding CC is recognizing the power of customers’ public perception and the speed at which that perception changes. 

That speed is very fast. 

The risk of weighing in on current events is high and controversial statements can come back to bite you, especially during an IPO or business merger.

Here’s my advice: Always be aware of what is happening worldwide. Only comment on the things your values drive you to comment on. As I said earlier, be ready to lose some clients, but at least you can look at yourself in the mirror.

Speaking up

As business owners, we have unique opportunities to support and stand behind social events, movements, and trends.

That being said, the goal is to NOT get canceled when entering the conversation.

Let’s learn from other people’s mistakes so we don’t make them ourselves. 

Retail juggernaut Zara, welcome to the chat.

The case of Zara’s ‘Jacket’ campaign

Zara was in the spotlight in December 2023, and not for good reasons. The ‘Jacket’ campaign was criticized for imagery that some perceived as insensitive, drawing parallels with the casualties of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The photos of a model surrounded by mannequins missing limbs or covered by shrouds drew comparisons to images of corpses and casualties, causing many to describe the campaign as “insensitive” and “tone-deaf.” 

 This highlights several critical lessons in crisis PR:

  • Timing and context: Zara’s campaign coincided with heightened tensions in the Middle East, exacerbating the backlash. The lesson here is that context and timing are critical in launching campaigns. Although it was designed to be provocative, the campaign would have probably been fine if the images didn’t coincide in viewers minds with the casualties in Gaza.

  • Accountability: For many, Zara’s response lacked accountability, starting with “Unfortunately, some customers felt offended by these images.” They attributed the controversy to timing rather than acknowledging a lapse in judgment. Accountability will calm things down if done right.

  • Learning from past mistakes: Zara had previously faced criticism over a designer’s anti-Palestinian comments. Not learning from your past controversies compounds public distrust.

Zara’s handling of this controversial campaign offers many lessons about PR crisis management for brands and companies.

The key takeaways from this situation are:

  • Respond quickly
  • Show accountability
  • Never repeat the same mistake twice

With these steps, businesses overcome even the most challenging PR crises.

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Knowing when to shut up

So, what do you do when your audience doesn’t align with your values?

This might cause internal friction. But, if you find yourself in this situation, I leave the answer up to you. 

Know this: a comment, ad, or e-mail that insults a large population is risky. As your PR team, I advise you to stay quiet and steer clear of these comments or ideas publicly. As a person, I always wear my heart on my sleeve but not at the risk of being canceled or hurting people’s feelings. I care too much about my livelihood and my family.

So here’s my advice: Always be aware of what is happening worldwide. Only comment on the things your values drive you to comment on. As I said earlier, be ready to lose some clients, but at least you can look at yourself in the mirror.

So you pissed people off, here’s how to manage it

When a business or founder finds themselves in the crosshairs of cancel culture, the response must be swift, sincere, and strategic. 

I’ll be honest–sometimes accusations seem true, and sometimes they are a misconception. Either way, you cannot ignore the public’s concern. This is where prior preparation goes a long way.

How to build a proactive PR strategy

Overall, the best defense against cancel culture is a proactive PR strategy (well ahead of a crisis) that anticipates and mitigates risks. 

Here are some tips for building a proactive PR strategy:

Step 1: Understand your audience

Regularly research and understand your audience’s values and expectations. This understanding helps you communicate with your audience and make business decisions.

Step 2: Conduct regular audits

Conduct regular audits of your content, campaigns, and communications to ensure they align with current societal norms and values. Have a diverse team that spans your target audiencefrom college students, baby boomers, gay, straight, black, brown, white, Asian, etc. This will help you see your blind spots.

Make sure someone reads every online comment and complaint and shares trends with your team. With these reviews, you’ll better understand your audience’s mindset.

Invest in building a strong, positive brand image through consistent, value-driven messaging and community engagement. Positive equity acts as a buffer in times of crisis.

Step 3: Create a crisis preparedness plan

Create a crisis management plan before you have a crisis. This should include protocols for rapid response, how to involve legal counsel, key messaging, and steps for damage control. When a public misstep happens, bring your plan out immediately.

Step 4: Train your employees

Train your employees on the importance of brand reputation and how their actions, online, offline, and in person, impact your reputation. The last thing you want is to have everything aligned and have some employee say something offensive on behalf of the company via their social media channels.

Step 5: Monitor social media

Keep a close eye on social media channels. Monitoring tools can help identify potential issues before they escalate.

Step 6: Build positive equity

Invest in building a strong, positive brand image through consistent, value-driven messaging and community engagement. Positive equity acts as a buffer in times of crisis.

How to effectively manage a crisis

What if you didn’t prepare for a crisis and one happens? Don’t worry, I’ve got you.

Step 1: Quick response

Time is of the essence! A delayed response is perceived as indifferent or insensitive. Respond on the same day if your brand’s position or decision(s) are in question. Make a statement and post it to all social media accounts. If the media asks for a statement, craft a curated response for reporters. 

Note: I recommend your legal counsel and PR team review your response before posting.

Step 2: Acknowledge and apologize

If the backlash is due to a legitimate mistake, acknowledge it openly and apologize sincerely. Avoid defensive or ambiguous language. I always use “apologize” instead of “sorry.” There’s a lot of emotion attached to “I’m sorry.” Be careful not to admit to any wrongdoing directly.

Step 3: Transparency is key

Be transparent about the steps to address the issue. This could involve internal reviews, policy changes, putting certain team members on leave, or letting them go and/or other concrete actions. Face your audience, own the repercussions, and make it your core mission to avoid repeating them.

Step 4: Consistent communication

Keep the public informed about the progress and changes being made. Consistency in communication helps rebuild trust.

Some final words of advice

Navigating the “minefield” of cancel culture requires a nuanced understanding of public perception, a swift and sincere approach to crisis management, and a proactive strategy to mitigate risks. 

Speak up when your heart knows it’s right, but be prepared to lose clients. Ultimately, we want our customers, clients, and teams to be aligned with our morals and values.

By staying in tune with societal values and being prepared to respond authentically and transparently, you can weather the storms of a public crisis and emerge with your reputation intact.

  • Marin Richardson

    Marin Richardson is the CEO and founder of disrupt pr, (named best new pr agency 2023 by the PR Bulldog Awards). The former national tv reporter lands DOPE brands in outlets like the Today Show, NY Times and Inc. Richardson is a disruptor at heart … and in everything she does. She’s a new mom to a 5 month old blue eyed pumpkin baby girl… Marley Sur (named after Bob Marley & Big Sur).

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