Cancel culture and reputational crisis

We all know and say phrases like “Everyone makes mistakes!” and “No one is perfect!” – especially when it comes to our own missteps or those of our loved ones. It’s actually pretty clear to us that these phrases contain quite a bit of truth. Yet, the digital public seems to be forgetting about this more and more often these days. Particularly when it comes to celebrities, politicians or companies, the public’s tolerance for mistakes seems to be steadily decreasing. In the context of so-called cancel culture, small mistakes, but also long-ago missteps quickly unleash an avalanche of indignation in this context. This then rolls through the web, triggers calls for boycotts, brings politicians to their knees or tears down entire careers along the way.

Power to the people – why is Cancel Culture even bad?

Cancel Culture doesn’t sound all that problematic to you at first? Individuals get more say, minorities can point out grievances more loudly, and actors who continuously misbehave are held accountable. Yes, Cancel Culture has good sides and, in the best case, can lead to a positive change in behavior. For as positive as the whole thing seems at first glance, there is also much to criticize. For example, cancel culture not only gives marginalized groups a voice, but it also simultaneously works against broad-based plurality of opinion. In addition, on the one hand, the digital calls for boycotts are escalating more and more, leading to verbal outbursts, defamation and insults against people or companies that are simply unacceptable in such severity.

On the other hand, they are also instrumentalized by political groups to wage proxy wars, in which the actual targets of the boycott calls are massively and unintentionally caught in the crossfire. Ultimately, the triggers for such boycotts are not always recent events, but also long-ago offenses. The problem here is that social norms are not static. They evolve – for example, behaviors that were considered legitimate by the masses 50 years ago are no longer okay today. Nevertheless, past actions are still evaluated in the context of current values. This does not always have to be wrong, but this practice should be critically examined and questioned on a case-by-case basis.

You have done nothing and yet you are under fire

In addition to all these points of criticism, cancel culture also opens up new gateways for targeted reputational attacks. Because producing an (artificial) hate storm is made even easier by the increasing cancel culture, while the outrage storm itself also entails increasingly serious consequences. The goal in a fake firestorm can be different: Interest groups try to push through their own agenda, political groups try to discredit their opponents, or companies simply try to gain a market advantage.

To carry out such an attack, attackers specifically look for missteps by the company or its employees and make them public. If they do not find any weak points, they simply resort to a simple method: they invent alleged incidents, create false content and spread it on the Internet. Then, they provoke a firestorm with fake likes and comments and also try to drive users to join in by posting particularly polarizing content.

Once the firestorm has been unleashed, it is almost impossible to recover. Even correcting false information often has only a small effect. This is because coordinated online shaming destroys not only the reputation but also the credibility of the actor under attack. In addition,
1) many users do not research such cases again and, in the worst case, do not even come into contact with the corrections and
2) the so-called negativity effect also comes into play here.
This causes us to remember negative information more than positive information. In the case of a fake cancel culture attack, it is more likely to be the accusation than the correction.

Companies in the cultural crossfire

For companies, the cancel culture phenomenon thus entails two main developments. A change in the understanding of reputation and also new framework conditions for crisis management.

Values and purpose as new reputation drivers

Corporate reputation is constituted by various factors. In the past, these were primarily functional aspects: product, service quality or the financial strength of a company were the main reputational drivers. Today, we are experiencing a change toward an emphasis on social reputation. Potential customers and employees are increasingly asking questions like: How does the company treat its employees? Does the company pay attention to environmental friendliness? How sustainably does it operate? And above all, do the company’s values and purpose match my own?

If the last question in particular is answered with “yes,” there is a high probability that a person will develop a positive image of the company. Companies must therefore base their own actions and also communications much more strongly on this new understanding. In addition to that, the behavior of employees and business partners should be examined against this background. If you do business with a supplier who is conspicuous for critical behavior, this is quickly projected onto your company. It is therefore important to create awareness of reputation and its pitfalls throughout the entire value chain.

New framework for digital crisis management in the context of cancel culture

Cancel culture exacerbates the danger level on the Internet. The fear that every e-mail could end up on the Internet and trigger a boycott quickly makes you unable to act. If you want to counteract this, you have to invest in digital crisis prevention. On the one hand, it helps to minimize digital risks – such as reputational attacks as far as possible. Also, it helps to prepare for being at the center of a digital boycott call. In the event of an emergency, this also helps to react quickly and, above all, adequately to avoid worse consequential damage.

You need support in dealing with digital crises? We are happy to help you!

Better safe than sorry.