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The role of culture and values in protecting against cancel culture

February 2022
 by Jess Shelver

The role of culture and values in protecting against cancel culture

February 2022
 By Jess Shelver

Today’s world is governed by fluid and emerging rules, and nowhere is this more evident than in the cancel culture movement, where one ill-considered action, phrase or move can damage an individual or company brand irreparably. 

Cancel culture is the process of shaming and boycotting a person, brand or company. It is a growing phenomenon in an increasingly polarised and digital world, where people are frustrated by lockdowns, mercurial restrictions and disinformation.  For businesses, cancel culture brings risks alongside potential rewards, but one thing is certain: ignore or underestimate it at your peril.  

Business unusual

How do you cancel-proof your brand and manage your reputation? The first place to seek answers is in the mirror. Your company DNA – comprising your vision, mission and values – is the linchpin for guiding your behaviour, response and retribution in these changing times.  

Companies create culture through their community, and it is underpinned by values that the community buy into. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing”. The more the tree and the shadow match, the stronger the brand. Cancel culture is less likely to impact brands that adhere to their own vision and values, so this is the perfect place to start with cancel-proofing.

Create culture, don’t cancel it

In the past, brands controlled their own global narratives and had a powerful influence on the direction of the cultural zeitgeist. But now companies are losing power to a global, connected, and empowered public, who are more likely to question and challenge than to simply comply.

The cancel culture movement has gained huge momentum, and its message should be heard: times are changing, and the public will not be placated easily. Millennials and Gen Z-ers, who hold a considerable amount of purchasing power, are prepared to challenge the status quo and demand something different from those in positions of power. They seek answers about companies’ complicity and activity around issues such as climate change, racism in the workplace, gender parity, and systemic inequality. They also want authentic collaboration in building a better system that considers people, the planet and sustainable profits.  

In response, an increasing number of prominent companies are working hard to create new, positive and in-touch cultures. Often, however, these cultural changes remain invisible to stakeholders outside of the organisation, and companies fail to convert the changes to public recognition and increased advocacy.

At the other end of the spectrum, many companies have come under fire for greenwashing, with Bloomberg assessing that European Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) assets shrank by $2 trillion following the introduction of anti-greenwashing rules. This has led some companies to be reluctant in promoting even genuine ESG credentials, for fear of greenwashing claims. 

Against this complex backdrop, finding and defining a good middle ground is key to reputation management. There is power in creating space: former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly initiated a company-wide process that encouraged employees to use their “human magic”. To ensure the business was driven by its purpose and its values, he involved employees in the decision-making process, transforming the company by creating a culture of inclusivity and employee empowerment.  

Don’t get caught in the hype

Change is inevitable, but is it always good? The downside of cancel culture is that it can drown out a diversity of voices, which is potentially damaging in a globalised, multicultural world. Mob mentality, whether on the ground or online, is never constructive. 

But how do companies deal with this, when those who shout loudest are often the ones who are heard? When it happens to your brand, it’s hard to resist a kneejerk reaction and response, as stocks plummet and customers retaliate. But there is space for brands and companies to deliver a sense of logic and calm in the face of cancel culture online tsunamis.

Spotify is currently facing cancellation from within its community, with advertisers and artists pulling their business from the platform in the wake of the Joe Rogan controversy and the alleged spreading of misinformation. This event underscores the role of consistent online reputation management and brand-building. Companies must understand and be aware of the reputational risks of being associated with a person, based on their potential misalignment with company values.

A sound value base, made easily identifiable through a company’s online profile, is the first step. The second is to ensure those values are applied consistently to every situation. If, for example, a key member of leadership or an employee is “cancelled”, the company response needs to emanate from an application of the corporate values. Establishing clear “at work” and “outside of work” rules for conduct can support this, within a minefield of unregulated space and reputational risk.

Numerous stories exposing the insensitive historical tweets of key employees have brought companies’ names into disrepute in the past few years. In 2021 Teen Vogue’s newly-appointed Editor-in-Chief Alexi McCammond resigned after anti-Asian tweets she had written as a teenager resurfaced. The focus of responsibility shifted to the publishing group’s senior leadership when media articles claimed Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour had made the hiring decision despite knowing about the tweets.

Stick to your values and read the room

The risks surrounding such events are regulatory, ethical, and even constitutional, in the case of freedom of speech infringements. And while swift action may feel like the right step, it could hurt a company in the long run if they get the decision wrong or do not investigate thoroughly.

Good decisioning based on value systems that reinforce reputation is the bedrock of navigating cancel culture moments. No situation is one-dimensional, and the online pile-ons, trolls, and targeted misinformation make it even more critical to be calm, clear, grounded and methodological – all things companies should be well-versed in.

There must also be space to fail and embrace imperfection and missteps, using them as opportunities for growth and change. An apology or explanation, along with demonstrating that you have listened and learnt, can go a long way in the current climate of consumer expectation. Damage can be repaired if brands and companies are honest, open, human, iterative and clear about their values on the journey to improving, in the face of reputation incidents.

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