By Evan Nierman, Founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a strategic PR and crisis communications firm that serves clients around the world
With controversial issues related to Covid-19, police brutality and racial inequality roiling the nation, organizations are wrestling with vexing questions about what to say and how to say it. Opting to remain silent can itself lead to criticism, while commenting publicly in any fashion on pretty much any topic carries high risks, as well.
This situation has produced a major spike in the phenomenon known as cancel culture, which results when people “cancel,” or withdraw support for, people or companies after they have said or done something considered offensive. Typically mobilized through social media, cancel culture is often associated with demands such as firing executives, boycotting products and seeking to destroy online reputations.
Given the speed and ferocity of such efforts, organizations and private individuals must be prepared to act rapidly and decisively should they find themselves facing cancel culture. Here are five strategies that can help.
1. Look and listen.
When people are slamming your organization online, the first instinct might be to open your digital mouth and defend yourself with posts that provide your perspective. Instead, first look at and listen to what is being said. Observe what others are saying about your brand online. Read articles and keep tabs on comments and commentary to gauge public sentiment. Utilize hashtags to search social media sites such as Twitter. You can also use third-party platforms for media monitoring, such as Google Alerts, Mention or Talkwalker.
Gathering information about public perception before wading into the discussion ensures that you are properly prepared to address the situation at hand, assuage negative attitudes and mitigate the potential for more slip-ups that could damage your brand long term.
2. Lock down your message.
Once you have taken the pulse on what is being said, use those insights to develop a thoughtful communications approach that drives your core messages. Make sure that you are cohesive and consistent across all platforms, which ensures that you effectively communicate the points that are most essential. When addressing difficult subjects, formulate your communication in a way that addresses the controversy at hand but focuses more on conveying positive sentiments than calling additional attention to negative topics.
If your organization made a mistake or could have handled a situation better, then be honest about that. Be accountable. Emphasize your positive qualities, and pledge to improve in the future. Following through on promises wins back trust and avoids accusations that you are issuing hollow promises or simply dishing out empty rhetoric.
3. Seek an outside perspective.
While you may have members on your team prepared to help handle a crisis, getting a fresh set of eyes on the situation is often advisable. An expert opinion from a crisis public relations (PR) or crisis management firm can help analyze the problem and provide a dispassionate, outside perspective.
A public relations firm that specializes in crisis PR can help guide you through a challenging situation, often working in tandem with an in-house or outside attorney to minimize legal exposure.
4. Get into the fight.
For an organization under fire, it is incumbent upon you to defend your reputation and set the record straight by pressing the truth. Nobody has the information that you do, or the desire to make sure your company survives.
Once you have taken the steps previously outlined, it is time to undertake a deliberate strategy of internal and external communications. Seek to engage your customers, vendors and staff, as well as the media and others talking about you online.
5. Rally your supporters.
Part of putting your message out into the world is enlisting the help of your supporters, fans and followers. Identify those who believe in you and your company. This could include partners, investors, members of your board and passionate fans of your brand.
When assembling your surrogates, don’t forget your own staff members. If you have developed a positive and effective communication strategy during a time of crisis, then individuals on your team can be effective front-line crusaders in the mission to save your company’s reputation. Everyone from senior executives to entry-level staff can be powerful advocates, empowered to speak from personal experience as they utilize your messaging and set the record straight.
Aim to survive and thrive.
In today’s environment, droves of people can be rapidly mobilized to destroy — or to defend — your personal reputation or organization. Activism in the form of cancel culture relies on sustained and overwhelming pressure designed to produce a desired outcome.
By following these five steps and drawing upon the same decisiveness and relentless commitment to action, organizations can ensure that they don’t merely survive but continue to thrive.