Understanding cancel culture as a PR professional
Most of us could probably come up with a long list of people who have been canceled, but what is cancel culture? According to Professor Michael L Kent, Professor of Public Relations from the University of New South Wales, “All of it goes back to the idea of a boycott, which goes back over 100 years.” Essentially, you are withdrawing your support from a person or company because of something they did or said that was offensive.
Ms. Holly Baird, President of Gregarios Communications, points out that “A lot of times there is a behavior that might have been acceptable years ago and/or might not have been acceptable, but it was accepted and now people are calling those individuals out.” It’s important to realize that the things people do individually and for their clients are under constant scrutiny. Also, problems from the past no longer disappear like they used to.
The advent of the Internet and social media seem to coincide with the emergence of cancel culture. According to Dr. Damion Waymer, Department Chair of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama, “People don’t call and complain about customer service, they’re not gonna complain to the manager, they’re going straight to Twitter to flame you.” These new social media landscapes are almost exclusively where people get canceled. All the professionals interviewed felt the media does try to use cancel culture, but as Waymer says, “People have seen so much success by calling for cancellation through social media that it’s become a default strategy.”
What can you do as PR professional to deal with cancel culture? According to Waymer, “Your CSR has to be genuine, and it has to align with what you’re already doing, in terms of your mission and vision.” Having a well-defined platform and values will help companies seem genuine when they do enter a conversation. Waymer emphasizes it’s not just the words that matter, but whether or not the company has been active in the area of discussion. Waymer used Coca-Cola as an example of a company that has a solid foundation of action that has helped the African-American community, which is part of the reason they got such a positive response when they rebuked the Georgia voting bill.
On the other hand, companies can try to do too much when dealing with cancel culture. According to Baird, “As a black woman, you’re finding a lot of companies are trying to overexert themselves into certain conversations,” saying, “Aunt Jemima is a great example of trying to get ahead of cancel culture and it backfiring.” Baird felt that there really was no reason to change their label because everyone was fine with it, but once they made this mistake a lot of people found out about the history and were upset. Sometimes things are better off left alone; especially, if no one has a problem with it.
Cancel culture is a tough thing to deal with as a PR professional. According to Kent, “One side is always going to say the other is wrong.” Knowing this, PR professionals should remember their actions are always being scrutinized, nothing ever goes away completely, and that social media is a driving factor of cancel culture. Organizations should lay the work for progress before being canceled and should never forget how important it is to be genuine. It may be a lot to remember, but it’s better than being canceled.
By Garrett Keller
Garrett was born in Porterville, California, where he grew up on his family's farm. Garrett currently resides in San Diego. He is a third-year Journalism Media Studies major with an emphasis in Public Relations and a minor in Interdisciplinary Studies. Garrett hopes to move to Hawaii after graduating, where he will help his family start a new farm and hopefully land a PR job on the big island.