Telum Vox Pop: Tackling cancel culture and crisis communication (Nov 2021)


When cancel culture strikes, how should one respond?

Telum Media spoke to K Bhavani, Managing Director at International PR Training Pte Ltd and two others who tell us what they would do in a communications crisis and offer some tips for bouncing back.

Here is an extract of comments made by Ms K Bhavani, Managing Director of International PR Training Pte Ltd and Past President of IPRS from 2002-2009.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for crisis communication?

K Bhavani: The biggest challenge for crisis communication is managing digital and social media in a crisis. Social media is an important channel and speeds up communication with your critical stakeholders in a crisis. But at the same time, monitoring and listening to social media are essential in a crisis. Various issues are discussed and could have relevance and impact on your organisation. Then, there are rumours, fake news and misinformation - all of which should be promptly and effectively handled.

We live in an age where a cancel culture can break even an established brand. When being cancelled, when should one keep quiet, and when is it time to speak up?

K Bhavani: For brands, they have to evaluate the impact of cancel culture on their brand and reputation. Silence is not really an option. The company has to state its position on the matter or communicate what action will be taken. When they are being cancelled, they may have to act fast to do damage control especially if it has a direct impact on their bottom line. The company's CEO or spokesperson should decide on what strategy to take. Did the company make a mistake? If so, there is a need to apologise and accept responsibility for what has happened. Kendall Jenner's appearance in the Pepsi ad led to a cancel culture crisis. She was accused of undermining the Black Lives Matter movement after handing a can of soft drink to the police officer during a protest. Pepsi pulled out the advertisement and Kendall Jenner said she felt bad if she had offended anyone.

Your brand/client is being actively cancelled on social media. What are some tips for bouncing back?

K Bhavani:

  • Evaluate the impact on your brand and reputation - a short term issue or a long-term issue to be managed?
  • Apologise if you had made a mistake. • Respond quickly, with sincerity and empathy.
  • Be open and transparent - share as much as you can.
  • Continue to actively engage your customers.

An existing brand ambassador / influencer is facing allegations of misconduct. At what point should you decide to stop working with this person?

K Bhavani: You have to evaluate the impact of this influencer on your brand in the long term. Someone who has been charged with corruption or crime may not be the right influencer for your brand. Also, the influencer's values may be different from your organisation's values. This is not acceptable. In 2018, Nike faced a cancel culture crisis when they used Colin Kaepernick, a footballer and civil rights activist, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their iconic slogan. Nike knew what it was doing when it picked Kaepernick. They stood by their decision to select him. They had considered the impact on the brand and decided that the long-term benefits will far outweigh the immediate reactions. It made good business sense.

They say that prevention is better than cure. What are some preventive measures that a brand can take to either avoid a crisis or to better deal with a crisis when it strikes?

K Bhavani: Cancel culture is a dominating trend in recent years and it will grow stronger in the years ahead. It is a high probability risk with a high impact on brand value, sales and profitability. First, brands, particularly consumer brands, need to have a crisis communications plan to deal with this growing threat. The company and the brand, and/or their celebrity endorser could be cancelled for various reasons. A pre-planned course of action and a response strategy will help the company to act quickly and arrest this threat to the brand. Second, select your celebrity endorser and influencer carefully. Importantly, your influencer should share similar values to the brand. Third, pay attention to the culture and issues in each country. Your failure to understand the culture and ground sentiments leads to a crisis.