Telum Vox Pop: Tackling cancel culture and crisis communication

Telum Vox Pop: Tackling cancel culture and crisis communication

By Sam Jo Yeo

When cancel culture strikes, how should one respond? Telum Media spoke to K Bhavani, Managing Director at International PR Training Pte Ltd, Caroline Sapriel, Managing Partner at CS&A International and Lina Marican, Managing Director at Mutant Communications, who tell us what they would do in a communications crisis and offer some tips for bouncing back.

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. 

Caroline Sapriel: Crisis communication requires the support of and must be mandated by the organisation’s leadership team to address this critical topic effectively and have the desired impact.

Lina Marican: One of the biggest challenges is that information spreads quickly across social media channels. Whether that information is accurate or not adds another layer of difficulty to the crisis - especially when things like screenshots and video recordings can be doctored. Brands and communicators need to be constantly plugged into conversations to monitor online sentiment and be prepared to jump into action.
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?
Lina Marican:
Brands or individuals under fire should always speak up. After reviewing the situation to understand why the community is trying to cancel you, your first step is to acknowledge the allegations. What is being said, who is saying it, and what is the driving factor that kick-started the online mob? Many times, the drive behind a cancellation is emotional - people are often upset or angry with a statement or action (or a lack of either), and their feelings are valid, no matter what your position. It’s extremely important to acknowledge the situation and people’s emotions - without gaslighting or getting defensive in an initial statement.

If the allegations are not true - set out to share your side of the story calmly and factually. If a brand is transparent about showing their cards, there won’t be any legs to support the rumours.

If you’re in the wrong, then an apology is 100% necessary. This is a crucial step that many seem to veer away from, usually because lawyers might suggest saying “sorry” is an admission of guilt with legal consequences. However, consumers can sniff out a “non-apology”, which can further damage your brand reputation. Be sincere, humble and don't attempt to play the blame game. Consumers tend to respect individuals who own up to their mistakes and promise to do better.

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.     

Caroline Sapriel: Unfortunately, everyone looks for a one-size-fits-all in this matter. Investigating the context and reasons for this is essential: what are the motives, drivers etc. Instead of knee-jerk reacting, carefully weighing the risks and benefits of alternative strategies is what must be done repeatedly. Scenario planning a course of action before making the decision is a critical step in best practice crisis management and communication.

Your brand/client is being actively cancelled on social media. What are some tips for bouncing back?
K Bhavani:
  1. Evaluate the impact on your brand and reputation - a short term issue or a long-term issue to be managed?
  2. Apologise if you had made a mistake. 
  3. Respond quickly, with sincerity and empathy.
  4. Be open and transparent - share as much as you can.    
  5. Continue to actively engage your customers.

Caroline Sapriel: Credibility is everything. This is not the time to aim for image, it’s the time to carefully rebuild trust and look for alternative channels to re-establish presence and dialogue with customers. It’s a slow process, but fast-tracking does not work and can even cause more damage. Empathy and actions by "walking the talk" and "talking the walk" are the starting point of bouncing back.

Lina Marican: Once a brand has sincerely apologised for their mistakes, it’s time to take action. Show how your brand is walking the talk and implementing things differently. Research shows that 88% of consumers are more willing to forgive a company if it shows a genuine attempt to change. Promise action and follow through. It does take time to repair your reputation, so build a longer-term plan where you can showcase an outcome, partnership or campaign each quarter that helps to prove your sincerity.

An existing brand ambassador / influencer is facing allegations of misconduct. At what point should you decide to stop working with this person?
Caroline Sapriel: Again, conducting a risk/benefit analysis is the first thing to do, and then based on this, decide on the appropriate course of action.

Lina Marican: To err on the side of caution, I would usually advise my clients to stop working with the influencer immediately - although this can be taken on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, a brand should not support an influencer who is currently under investigation, as consumers would immediately question the values of their favourite brand. If the cancellation is over something more minor, or based on incomplete truths or misunderstandings, there may be room to continue working with the influencer in the future - but a lot of this depends on how they handle the situation.

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?
Lina Marican: I would say that issues are inevitable, and all brands should create a crisis manual that outlines various triggers that could impact their reputation. It could be an external trigger such as a political situation, a hacker leaking your consumer data, or an internal issue such as staff misconduct.

Playing out the top triggers and mapping your approach on tackling them, including the platforms and holding statements, is very helpful when you’re caught in a crisis and need to turnaround a quick response.

However, if you’re truly caught off guard and need to address issues quickly, brands should always start with an acknowledgement to reassure their customers that they’re listening. Apologise and take action while communicating with your employees and stakeholders, not just with the media. Oftentimes, I see brands focused on responding to journalists - failing to address or get support from their own staff, who truly can be your biggest advocates.

You can bounce back from a crisis if you acknowledge mistakes, apologise sincerely and take action to do better.

Caroline Sapriel: It is impossible to predict or prevent every crisis, especially in the context we live in, which is riddled with misinformation and disinformation. However, a solid tracking system combined with sustained risk and issues management as well as a crisis readiness plan can help to detect and mitigate them.

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.

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