It’s been about seven years since cancel culture entered the mainstream and made it that much harder for anyone in the public eye to stick their neck out.
While cancel culture tends to orbit around high-profile individuals for saying something socially, politically or morally unsavoury - think Ye, Elon Musk, J.K. Rowling, the list goes on – corporates are far from immune.
As tempting as it may be to keep a low profile to avoid the risk of being cancelled, in an increasingly digitised world, building your brand is more important now than ever.
A common form of corporate cancel culture is to accuse businesses of greenwashing: overstating their environmental sustainability efforts to build and protect their social licence.
It’s really easy to focus on the potential negatives and be scared off raising your head above the parapet as a way to avoid any form of backlash.
Research from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing found two thirds of UK marketers limit their work for fear of causing cultural offence.
This is a narrow approach that doesn’t consider the whole context of today’s corporate environment, or people’s capacity for compassion and to think beyond the binary.
DGL’s rapid loss in value after its CEO made derogatory remarks about celebrity chef Nadia Lim is a good case study. Does it mean you shouldn't comment on other businesses or people? No, just don’t be racist or sexist. It’s not exactly hard.
CEOs with an active social media presence can have a huge positive effect on their companies. Fortune writer Alen Bubich analysed a range of studies to show how business leaders can attract investors and better talent, improve their company’s reputation and their chance of closing deals by having strong profiles.
“The reality is that if top executives are not social selling, they are missing opportunities that far exceed the dangers. Your absence on social media is killing deals,” he writes.
I’ve seen a number of press releases and advisories that talk up the huge reputational risk that cancel culture presents.
It’s fantastic scaremongering, and it serves only to discourage brands from showcasing the good work they’re doing and reaping the rewards for it.
Right now, there’s never been a greater opportunity to build brands and differentiate yourself from your competition based on sustainability, diversity and meaningful social initiatives.
Consumers are actively making decisions based on businesses whose values and social impact they align with, and businesses that neglect to communicate the good work they’re doing are ignoring an open goal.
Proponents of cancel culture often target companies and claim they should “do better”, even if they’re doing good things. It’s important to keep this kind of criticism in context and focus on the overall feedback rather than dwell on the outliers.
Audiences can take in more than one perspective at once. To suggest they’re easily swayed by the odd negative social media comment is not giving them enough credit.
The key is data integrity. Fair-minded consumers (yes, they exist) can tell the difference between a baseless drama and a genuine scandal.
If you can stand by the claims you make, you will still appeal to the majority.
It comes down to how well you listen and communicate. Be honest, don’t cover anything up, and tell the whole story. If you can do that, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.