Cancel culture and the risk of speaking out

December 2020
 by Beatrice Giribaldi Groak

Cancel culture and the risk of speaking out

December 2020
 By Beatrice Giribaldi Groak

The evolution of cancel culture

Cancel culture is a term that has continued to make headlines in recent months. To ‘cancel’ a high-profile individual or organisation online is to ardently remove support for them due to disagreeing with their views, usually on a particularly sensitive topic. Its original purpose was to demand greater accountability from public figures during the #MeToo movement, among others. Cancel culture has since become increasingly pervasive, and while it has helped to highlight and progress discussions about some important societal issues, its rising prevalence has also raised concerns.

In an increasingly polarised world, some argue that the threat of being cancelled can deter people from voicing their opinions or values, which in turn jeopardises the very concept of freedom of speech. In recent times, it appears that when an individual or organisation shares an opinion or stance, there can be less space for measured debate, and more of an appetite for public vilification. Deciding whether to go public about your values is an important call to make, as the consequences of being cancelled can be devastating.

Whether cancel culture is here to stay in its current form is hard to tell, but one thing is for sure – social media provides an amplifying mechanism for activists that did not exist in the pre-digital world. Fuelled by social media sharing, public cancellations can permeate the online space at incredible speed, sometimes indelibly. At its worst, cancel culture can have the flavour of an angry mob. The consequences can be severe and long-term, not only on the individual but also on their reputation. JK Rowling has been one of the high-profile recipients of cancel culture, and the ruthlessness of the response to her views on certain transgender topics has put into perspective the extent of damage control needed as a result.

Speaking out in a time of cancel culture

Companies are coming under increasing pressure to state their positions on social and political issues. The severity of the backlash received by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, who advocated an apolitical company mission and offered a severance package for any employee who disagreed, testifies to the fact that an apolitical corporate stance is no longer acceptable.

For companies, setting out a moral framework – their values and social purpose – is key to ensuring longevity in corporate reputation today. Similarly, for business families and the philanthropic foundations they oversee, articulating their social purpose and the social change they aim to propel enables stakeholders to understand their values. In turn, this can lead to increased levels of support and a more resilient reputation. There are some simple rules to follow when communicating your values and your stance on social issues while navigating the online world of cancel culture.

Speak and write clearly. The standard PR language in which many companies express sensitive issues can seem inauthentic, and it is usually obvious if a statement has been written by a PR team rather than coming from leaders themselves. Avoid being sanctimonious. Prose on the internet is not the same as prose on the written page – keep language real and genuine. It works best when it is heartfelt.

Do not promise things you can’t deliver. The response of a number of companies to the Black Lives Matter movement was to offer targets for internal cultural change. These commitments will be remembered by employees and observers. Companies should only commit themselves to objectives they can deliver. And offering to improve broader social attitudes is a good sentiment, but it needs to be reinforced by a clear indication of how the company is intending to achieve this.

Avoid hypocrisy. It’s worth thinking a little about the company or family’s history and how this might have impacted the issues at hand. If these concerns seemed to matter little to the company in the past, it is perhaps wise to find a way to say this, and rectify it if necessary.

Pick your battles. Choose wisely which topics you will be vocal about, and be ready to defend your opinion in a well-researched, emotionally intelligent and constructive way.

Lead from the front. Statements of purpose and values need to come from the company’s leaders and be clearly embedded by them in the culture of the organisation they are running.

A clear digital communications strategy can be an important component of getting this right. Too often, the core values of a business are not visible enough online and across digital channels. Ensuring key messages are easily accessible and at the forefront of a corporate website can save misunderstandings. Developing the corporate or family leader’s online profile and finding ways to craft it so that it is truly representative of who they are, and what they stand for, is a great starting point. Projecting continuity in the messaging online is also essential. Finally, auditing the online footprint of a company or individual can help ensure your narrative is consistent in your post-crisis/post-cancellation communications strategy.

It may be that certain aspects of cancel culture, and the current trend of politicising online activity and discussions, will continue to challenge the conventional liberal values of free speech and expression. What is certain is that the risk to companies and high-profile individuals of becoming targets of ardent criticism online is intensifying. While we should not be discouraged from expressing an articulated and well-considered opinion, the old adage ‘think before you speak’ is more pertinent now than ever. Digital footprints can be more permanent than we might expect, and managing our online reputation is critical.

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