media update’s Taylor Goodman unpacks cancel culture, the modern customer and how this affects crisis communications.

Chances are, if you are an active social media user, you have heard of someone or something being cancelled at some point or another. Whether it’s a celebrity saying the wrong thing or a brand caught doing something questionable, nothing and nobody is immune to being thrust under the public’s microscope.  

But what does being cancelled actually mean for PR professionals? Let’s get into it:

Understanding ‘cancel culture’

Merriam-Webster defines getting cancelled as “removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behaviour or opinions.”

The root of cancel culture is strongly tied to black culture, as the term first popped up in the 1991 film New Jack City, where Wesley Snipes dumps his girlfriend by declaring that he will ‘cancel her’. 

The term ‘cancelled’ popped up again in the show Love and Hip-Hop: New York in 2014 when cast member Cisco Rosado declares her castmate, Diamond Strawberry, is cancelled during an argument

This sparked discourse on black Twitter, which can account for the popularisation of the term on social media. 
Although ‘cancelling’ someone originated as something you would jokingly tell your friends, it was not long until this term evolved into a way to express dissatisfaction with an entity that offended you. 

In a business context, this could mean consumers boycotting a brand after they have said or done something offensive. 

As cancel culture continued to spread online, critics viewed it as a witch hunt of sorts, possibly even ‘mob justice’, because of how online users would gang up on a singular entity or person and rule over their validity. 

This is understandable as it is publicly shaming someone on the biggest stage in the world: social media. 

On the other side of the coin, cancel culture puts the power back in the hands of the consumer, as they can seemingly block a brand from having a public platform if they deem their actions unacceptable. 

Additionally, this is essentially a form of social justice that enables the public to hold brands accountable and bring attention to pertinent issues — like a lack of diversity.  

Cancel culture and crisis communications

As technology and social media are so intertwined with our daily lives, it also influences our careers. This intersection between the digital world and business influences doesn't just affect consumer brands but industries like public relations as well. 

How so? Well, our digitised society has birthed a ‘new age’ of crisis communications: PR pros need to take entities like cancel culture and social media trolls into account when they are devising their crisis management plan. 

Additionally, those working in PR have a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders to keep up with the constantly evolving social landscape. 

Take #BlackLivesMatter for instance. When this movement was peaking in 2020, many brands made statements on the matter and publicists needed to ensure that they communicated this important message of inclusivity with tact and sincerity. 

Those brands that failed to do this were faced with extreme scrutiny online and were called out for using performative activism for personal gain. 

This was perfectly summed up by Alex Perry who said that “increasingly marketing-savvy consumers see right through disingenuous behaviour.” 

Consumers are not shy to call brands out when they are doing something they don’t like. This can be attributed to the higher level of awareness that comes with using social media. 

With this being said, PR pros need to be aware that the public is watching closer than they may think. And for this reason, they need to be meticulous when constructing media messages, ensuring that they are transparent throughout. 

Brands being outed on social media is nothing new; however, bad publicity is magnified and spreads at a quicker pace than ever before because of social media. For this reason, the prevention of being cancelled should form part of every brand's crisis communication plan. 

What do you think about cancel culture? Is it a menace or is it good that consumers have a say in the brands they support? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Want to learn more about how to step up your crisis management game? Then be sure to check out Shifting from tatters to TAT: Managing a PR crisis.
*Image courtesy of Vecteezy