Updated: Oct 11
"Cancel culture," is just two words, but its implications have shaken the foundations of the corporate communication world. The phenomenon isn't just theoretical; it's very real, as many brands have learned the hard way.
Take Dolce & Gabbana, for instance. In 2018, this luxury brand faced a whirlwind of backlash for an ad campaign in China perceived as culturally insensitive. The video depicted a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks, which many viewers interpreted as patronizing and disrespectful. Within mere hours of its release, the brand was inundated with negative press. Trending hashtags on Weibo (China's counterpart to Twitter) called for a boycott of the luxury brand, leading to a swift cancellation of D&G's upcoming major fashion show in Shanghai. Major e-commerce platforms in China, like Alibaba and JD.com, removed D&G products from their sites, highlighting the sharp drop in consumer trust and the tangible financial repercussions.
This incident with Dolce and Gabbana emphasized not just the speed, but also the magnitude at which public sentiment can pivot, especially in this era of instant communication and social media magnification.
With the digital realm amplifying voices like never before, companies are no longer the unchallenged giants they once were. Today, even the most established brands can find themselves on shaky ground, facing an online storm for which they are underprepared. This shift raises pressing questions: How is this phenomenon of cancel culture reshaping corporate narratives? How does it affect our strategies in communication? And as the digital realm becomes more unpredictable, how do brands stay afloat?
Decoding Cancel Culture: More Than Just Digital Noise
Let's break it down. 'Cancel culture' might seem like just another internet trend where people call out mistakes. But really, it's about asking brands to be responsible and true to what they say they stand for.
A good example is what happened with Pepsi in 2017. They made an ad with Kendall Jenner where she joins a protest and hands a Pepsi to a police officer. Many people felt that this ad made light of real protests and serious issues. It wasn't just that people didn’t like the ad. They were upset because they felt Pepsi was trying to use serious social movements to sell a product without really understanding or caring about those issues.
This highlights the concept of mass psychology as being more crucial than ever. The internet has transformed individual opinions into collective movements. A solitary voice can resonate with thousands, even millions, creating a ripple effect of shared sentiments and unified calls for change. This collective mindset is powerful; it acts as an amplifier, often highlighting issues that individual concerns might not bring to light. But it's also volatile.
Brands can easily misstep by underestimating the pulse of the masses or making assumptions that don't align with prevailing sentiments. Such miscalculations can lead to significant backlash, turning potential brand advocates into critics. For businesses and PR teams, this is a lesson. Cancel culture isn’t just about online noise. It's feedback. Instead of seeing it as just criticism, it can be a chance to learn. When people speak up, it's an opportunity for brands to listen, understand, and do better.
The PR Paradigm Shift: Anticipation Over Apology
The PR landscape is evolving, and with it, the strategies and tactics we once held dear are undergoing significant transformation. In yesteryears, a misstep could be managed with a standardized press release expressing regret. That formulaic approach, however, no longer cuts it with today's discerning consumers. They demand — and rightly so — genuineness, swift acknowledgement, and decisive action.
Consider the case of United Airlines in 2017. An incident where a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight went viral, sparking widespread outrage. The company's initial response, deemed by many as lacking empathy and responsibility, only fueled the public's ire. In the immediate aftermath, United's stock price took a hit, with the company's market value dropping by hundreds of millions of dollars at one point. Following the backlash from the initial response, United Airlines publicly apologized for the incident, stating, "We deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way." They also committed to making significant policy changes, including reducing overbooking, no longer using law enforcement to remove passengers from flights unless there is a security issue, and offering up to $10,000 for passengers willing to volunteer to take a later flight.
What this episode underlined was not just the importance of an appropriate response, but the necessity of anticipating potential PR disasters and acting swiftly and sincerely when they do occur. This shift in the industry is palpable. PR no longer orbits around mere reactive stances; it demands a forward-thinking, anticipatory approach. It's about foreseeing potential challenges, understanding societal triggers, and drafting not just Plan B, but Plans C, D, and E. Crisis communication, which used to be a specialized corner of public relations, is now front and center. It's a skill, nay, an art, that every PR professional, whether a newcomer or a seasoned veteran, needs to grasp and master.
Navigating the Terrain of Cancel Culture: A Strategic Blueprint
In current times, the echo of public sentiment resonates louder than ever before, and brands are realizing the imperative of navigating the cancel culture era with both agility and authenticity. Foremost is the need to listen, and not just passively. With tools available to monitor brand mentions, there's a pressing need to dig deeper into these conversations, to truly gauge and understand public sentiment. But understanding alone won’t turn the noise into a symphony;. We're moving past the era of robotic PR jargon. Today's consumers crave genuine, humanized interactions. Responses that emanate from the heart, reflecting the core values of a brand, are what strike a chord.
A great example is Starbucks' response to a 2018 incident in Philadelphia where two Black men were arrested for merely waiting in one of their stores. Rather than just issuing an apology, Starbucks took tangible steps by closing over a whopping 8,000 of its stores for racial bias training. This was a statement, backed with action. This wasn't just an acknowledgement but a demonstration of their commitment to change.
Furthermore, aligning a brand's message isn’t solely an external endeavor. Internally, everyone, from the fresh-faced intern to the seasoned CEO, must be harmonized with the brand's ethos. This means regular training, ensuring that every team member not only knows the brand voice but lives and breathes it. And when missteps happen, as they sometimes will, transparency becomes the brand's strongest ally. Admitting faults doesn't signify a brand's downfall. On the contrary, it showcases its maturity and dedication to growth.
Ultimately, the key to thriving in this ‘cancel culture’ era is evident: It's about taking real, tangible action. It's about demonstrating, not just stating, a commitment to rectification and growth.
Embrace the Change, Don't Fear It
Our industry is no stranger to adapting, innovating, and rising above challenges. Cancel culture, with its demand for authenticity and accountability, is simply a new chapter in our playbook. By staying informed, engaging genuinely, and taking real actions, we can not only survive in this era but also thrive and set higher benchmarks for corporate communication that is backed by tangible action.
In this constantly connected age, where a tweet can trigger a storm and an Instagram post can make or break reputations, the PR realm's mandate is clear: Stay prepared, stay genuine, and always stay a step ahead.
Psst! This blog was made with 💕 and created after some thought by a real person.