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What brands should know — and do — about cancel culture

In an era of boundless connections, the threat of cancel culture looms large for individuals, businesses, and other types of organizations – or brands. A single word, misstep or poorly construed message can have catastrophic consequences.

Therefore, knowing how to manage a brand’s reputation and navigate the perils of cancel culture is a must for brands striving to survive and thrive in this environment.

Bud Light got into a heap of trouble earlier this year after getting backlash over a campaign with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. (Credit: Lisa Carter | Dreamstime.com)

Up until relatively recently, brands used to stay out of politics and avoid controversy because taking sides could alienate a significant portion of their customer base. But in today’s increasingly polarized climate, remaining neutral can be viewed as being complicit. Canned apologies or statements of solidarity, too, no longer suffice in markets where consumers are well-informed and empowered to call out or cancel brands.

What is cancel culture?
Cancel culture refers to the practice of withdrawing support for brands based on their views, values or actions. “Canceling” typically involves boycotting a brand through social media.

According to Statista’s 2020 Global Consumer Survey, the top reasons U.S. consumers cancel brands are mistreating animals (44%), mistreating workers (41%), corruption/fraud (40%), tolerating racism (38%), harming the environment (35%), selling unhealthy products (34%), selling faulty products (33%) and tolerating sexism (32%).

Of the survey’s respondents, 18% said they had boycotted a brand over unethical practices, 15% said they had spoken with their friends and family about their concerns around a brand, and 16% said they had posted these concerns on social media. Half said they had never boycotted a brand before, while 21% said they would never cancel or boycott a brand over their business practices.

In a recent study by global communications firm Porter Novelli about U.S. corporate cancel culture and consumer behavior, 87% of respondents said companies should take accountability for their actions, words and statements. Most, 72%, said they felt empowered to share their thoughts or opinions about brands through social media; 68% said that canceling a brand can be the catalyst for positive social change, both for the company and society; and 70% would cancel a brand if it said or did something offensive in relation to racial justice, sexism, women’s rights and COVID-19 protocols.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the cultural impact of the internet on society and sparked a renewed wave of social activism, making cancellation one of the most contested issues of the decade, Forbes reported. In cancel culture, the report pointed out, transgressions are punished regardless of how long ago they occurred, and you’re no better than your worst moment no matter how young you were when you transgressed, even if it was an isolated incident.

There are many examples of cancel culture in which celebrities and brands had been “canceled,” at least temporarily, including Goya Foods, rap artist Kanye West, beer brand Bud Light, actress Roseanne Barr, food brand Aunt Jemima, and luxury fashion brand Balenciaga.

Reputation management: antidote to cancel culture
Reputation management refers to the practice of monitoring, managing and maintaining the reputation of a brand. Through various communication strategies, reputation managers track what’s being said about their clients, identify potential issues, shape public perception, mitigate negative publicity and implement reputation recovery strategies.

Lynnette Teissonniere, managing director of BCW in Puerto Rico

Nothing is as effective against cancel culture as being prepared for it.

“Anything can happen,” Lynnette Teissonniere, managing director of BCW in Puerto Rico, told News is My Business. “You have to have a plan because a threat to brand reputation can happen anytime.”

Always be prepared
A brand may come under fire for many reasons, such as talk of downsizing, winning a government contract or an employee making a controversial comment on social media, Teissonniere explained.

“You have to be prepared and proactive. You can’t sit and wait for the media to call you,” she said. “When a crisis comes, you can lose your reputation. And your reputation is worth more than anything. A [bad] reputation can bury you.”

“Always” being prepared has a deeper meaning these days, when social media allows communication to take place anytime, anywhere.

“A single comment on social media can create a crisis – anytime, day or night. Sometimes it can snowball, sometimes not,” Teissonniere said, noting that technology does more harm than good, even if it means more work.

“We can do miracles,” she said. “We have excellent tools that enable us to monitor our clients on social media 24/7. We see everything. We have alerts. We track positive and negative mentions. We create reports. And we can decide whether to wait or respond.”

That process is a far cry from Teissonniere’s early days in public relations.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve had to evolve,” she said. “We used to send a press release to newspapers that would be published the next day. Not now. Now, it may not be published at all, but the issue explodes on social media.”

To talk or not to talk
Many brands still choose to keep their opinions to themselves. But in the current environment, it’s likely that sooner or later they will find themselves pressured to speak up. Should they?

“My position always is that it’s better to be proactive than reactive,” Teissonniere said. “Don’t wait until a problem blows up.”

Some companies don’t want to expose themselves to the media. While that’s their choice, it usually doesn’t serve them well, she said.

“We have to be aware of the public’s concerns and at least let them know we’re working on the situation, that it was unexpected and that it won’t happen again,” she explained. A three-line statement from corporate doesn’t work, she added.

Conversely, other times it’s wiser to say nothing. Today’s brands are more open to discuss sensitive topics such as LGBTQ+, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, climate change and sustainability, but that doesn’t mean that every brand should join the discussion.

“Sometimes audiences try to cancel brands, like when Daddy Yankee announced he was converting to Christianity, but many came to defend him,” said Lynnette Teissonniere, managing director of BCW in Puerto Rico. (Credit: Miguel Campos | Dreamstime.com)

“As a representative of your brand, you have to choose when to join or not join that conversation,” Teissonniere said, using as an example the current conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Deciding whether to make a statement, whether to apologize for a perceived wrongdoing or to hold their ground is an extremely difficult decision for brands.

“It’s momentum,” she said. “There are times when small fires go out on their own. But other times, it gets to the point that you realize you have to do something. You have to release a statement, react. It’s a very critical moment, when you’re in the middle of the fire, because either you jump or wait, and waiting too long can be as risky as reacting too soon.”

When facing controversy or cancel culture, brands often are advised by counsel and in-house public relations or marketing departments to hunker down and say nothing. But that approach is less effective today, when social platforms dominate communications, versus in the past, when consumers relied on traditional media.

“[Social media] is a double-edged sword because if the company is doing well — if you’re turning a profit, if employees are happy — it’s great to put your stories out there, but when the stories are not so positive … that’s why you need to be proactive and control the narrative instead of reacting in the middle of a crisis,” Teissonniere said.

Prepare for a variety of scenarios
Every brand should have meticulously planned strategies for every challenging situation that may threaten its reputation.

Teissonniere’s team first audits how clients manage their communications. Then it creates a plan that incorporates strategies for reputation management, including how the company should respond in a variety of situations. The team also monitors social networks and provides media training for company leaders and employees.

“You have to know how to behave, how to express yourself, how to represent your brand – that is, if you want to keep your job,” she said. “Your reputation can determine whether you stay in business.”

Cancel culture in Puerto Rico
We asked Teissonniere how cancel culture in Puerto Rico compares with cancel culture on the U.S. mainland.

“I don’t think we have as strong a cancel culture here as in the states,” she said. “Sometimes audiences try to cancel brands, like when Daddy Yankee announced he was converting to Christianity, but many came to defend him. Puerto Rico is very small. We do have trolls … but you have to measure reactions given the issues and circumstances. Power and water outages, for example, are going to attract a lot of criticism.”

As examples of local cancel culture, Teissonniere mentioned former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who was forced to resign; celebrity La Comay (Kobbo Santarrosa), who has been boycotted multiple times; and actor Braulio R. Castillo, who recently stood his ground when criticized for saying the island has failed in educating citizens about eating healthy.

Reputation management tips
Teissonniere recommends brands hire communication strategy experts who are licensed in public relations and who work ethically.

“That’s very important because many people sell themselves [as experts] but know nothing about reputation management, and they end up doing the wrong thing,” she said.

She also offered the following tips for brands:

  • Stay informed about social, political and environmental issues. Understanding the evolving landscape can help anticipate areas where the brand might face challenges.
  • Include diverse voices in decision-making processes. This can help identify potential issues before they escalate and ensure that the brand’s messaging is inclusive and respectful of different viewpoints.
  • Regularly review and update brand/company policies.
  • Develop relationships with loyal customers and influencers who understand and believe in your brand.
  • Conduct regular audits of marketing materials, social media content and internal communications to ensure they align with the brand’s values and public image.

Author Details
Author Details
G. Torres is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She’s worked in business journalism for more than 25 years, including posts as a reporter and copy editor at Caribbean Business, business editor at the San Juan Star and oil markets editor at S&P Global Platts (previously a McGraw Hill company). She’s also worked in marketing on and off for decades, now freelancing for local marketing and communications agencies.

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