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Is Cancel Culture Inevitable?

Changing social norms and methods of communication have given rise to what many have called “cancel culture,” or society’s tendency to respond to offensive or inappropriate actions of varying severity by mobilizing to demand the resignation, firing, or removal of offending entities.

The debate around cancel culture is robust; the merits of this new social tendency — and the question of whether it even exists — are fiercely debated. Regardless of the politics of the situation, it is clear that high-profile corporations, organizations, and individuals are noticing this phenomenon — and looking for ways to insulate themselves from it.

Last October, Miller Ink Founder and CEO, Nathan Miller sat down for an interview with TV producers Rob Rosen and Desma Simon for their podcast Cancelled to discuss the nature of cancel culture, what it means for organizations and individuals, and how the PR industry can best meet the needs of the moment. 

Throughout the course of the episode, Nathan discussed the basic principles of crisis communications to help shed light on how companies, organizations, and individuals should respond to reputationally damaging situations. Nathan talked about some of the biggest PR mistakes he has seen companies make during crisis situations and easy strategies organizations can take to avoid these dangerous yet unfortunately common pitfalls. 

The following are three key points from Nathan’s interview, with quotes condensed and edited slightly for clarity. 

1 – Communication is changing, and so is the field of public relations. 

Rob: The first question is, what do you see as behind [cancel culture]? Is it simply a matter of social media being able to amplify loud voices? Or is there something else at play here?

Nathan: It reflects a sickness in the culture in many different ways. And you could break it down in different ways. One is the technology, right? Our company’s tagline is “PR is dead.” And what we mean by that is that the traditional model of public relations was that [PR reps] go to a journalist, and then leverage the platform of that journalist to tell the story of a client. And there was a mediated model where there were gatekeepers who controlled the flow of information to the public. And obviously, with the rise of digital platforms and social media, you can communicate directly with an audience. And that’s extremely powerful today. A YouTube clip often is going to get a lot more traction than something on CNN, or a tweet can be a lot more powerful than something in the LA Times. This creates a totally different environment in which you’re communicating. 

And so, we’ve lost those gatekeepers and those mediators to drive conversation. And so, what it does is it elevates and creates incentives for the most extreme points of view to really be elevated within a dialogue. And I think it also distorts where the center of public opinion really might be on an issue. There’s a lot of inauthentic activity online today that I think drives a lot of this stuff. And so, there’s like whole information echo chambers that exist. Often with interests behind them, I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but that’s just often the case, whether it’s companies fighting each other, state actors fighting each other, individuals who are mad at each other. And you can create the impression of anything you want pretty cheaply and effectively if you know what you’re doing. And people take advantage of that in different ways… 

It’s very hard to hold folks like [LeBron James or Bella Hadid] accountable in a way that’s going to be effective. It used to be that you got a story in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Los Angeles Times, and that was powerful. Today, so many more people are going to see a Bella Hadid tweet or LeBron James tweet than are going to read a story in The New York Times or see something on CNN. It’s just amazing. There’s a huge imbalance and it’s very hard for somebody who’s being defamed by folks like that to really fight back and clear their reputation. It’s just extremely challenging.

2 – Most people make several key mistakes in a crisis. 

Rob: What would you say is the number one mistake that you see people making, like the people who are canceled and we don’t hear from them again? What’s the biggest thing that they do over and over again where you’re like, “oh, no, don’t do that?”

Nathan: There are a few. 

So, one thing is living in an echo chamber of yes people who just repeat the narrative that you want to hear in the moment, because you’re suffering or you’re upset, and not actually getting somebody who can come in and tell you the truth about how you’re being perceived. That’s a big mistake, especially with high-profile people. I see it a lot where they don’t have anybody in their circle who can actually say, “Hey, this is probably a bad idea,” or, “Maybe you should think about this in a different way” and get them to do that. 

The second is this notion of “we just have to do something.” I hear that a lot. “We just have to do something.” And that’s often wrong. People often feel like they want to do something because they’re in a spin but sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. So, this notion of acting because we have no other alternative, it’s very fatalistic, and people get in that mindset when they’re under pressure.

And then I think there is the challenge with uncertainty. I deal in probabilities a lot. I’ll say to people: “I think there’s a 60% chance that this article goes really badly.” People aren’t hardwired always to be able to live with that. They want me to give them a guarantee, which is impossible in my business. So, it’s like learning to play the odds in a way—you’ll often end up on top and sometimes what was the worst advice turns out to be great advice. Just because they get lucky but doesn’t mean that it was the right call. And so, it’s like helping people to live within a range of different probabilities and make decisions according to them.

Let me give one more. This is actually maybe the most important one…which is lying. I think that’s really a big mistake. And sometimes lying is not intentional, right? People will say things before they have all the facts. A lot of times you’re dealing with big companies or organizations; they’ll want to put out a statement and then they get new information that corrects the statement, and therefore that first statement becomes a lie. So, you really want to avoid lying, you want to say things that are both true and authentic to who you are as an organization or a brand. And that’s really important to not try to pretend that you’re something that you’re not in a crisis moment, especially in this kind of social media era that we live in. It’s extremely dangerous. The cover-up is often worse than the crime. People get in trouble for how they react if it’s inauthentic or untruthful.

3 – In some cases, there’s not much you can do to avoid cancellation. 

Rob: What could [Roseanne Barr] have done to save herself? [Editor’s Note: This question refers to the cancellation of Rosanne Barr’s sitcom in 2018 after the comic sent a racist tweet about a former Obama administration official.]  

Nathan: I think that was probably inevitable once she put that tweet up. I think you just have to be realistic. I know this situation very well. That was a challenging situation. I think when you say that it’s ground zero, I think that’s right. My hunch is that there was probably some substance abuse involved with getting that late-night tweet. I mean, it was a very strange decision to do that. 

Rob: So, I mean, could she have gone with that? Could she have said, “look, I have prescription drugs, I was high, and I need to go into a rehab clinic?”

Nathan: I think. Yeah. And she’s tried different versions of it. The other route would have been to just really double down. Again, I think that that was a super problematic tweet, I don’t condone it, I think it was bad. But, you know, if you were cynical, you could say, Roseanne could go to this other segment of America that would be okay with it. And kind of double down on that kind of persona. Again, it depends on what the goal is, right? Is the goal to bring her back into the mainstream of Hollywood, or is the goal for her to become a conservative figure who has the battle scars and wants to continue thriving in that way?

I think you have to give context as to why she did it and explain her mindset. Maybe it’s talking about [the situation] as a comedian, “I was high one night,” or whatever it was, or “I thought this was funny, and kind of didn’t gut check it and recognize that this was like hurtful and offensive, and not comedy.” 

She tried to do that immediately, but it was challenging at that moment. And the network was putting a lot behind her and riding on that thing, right. I think it was just inopportune and that is a really challenging situation if you’re saying her show [shouldn’t have been] canceled…I don’t think within the mainstream culture, right now, you’re able to do it and get away with it. That’s why.

Everyday there are new articles and news pieces covering cancel culture and lingering affects from those who had a bad tweet or comment and are still suffering the consequences. Just ask Roseanne Barr or Marilyn Manson about it. The Daily Beast covered how “Cancel Culture” is changing the work place and businesses are taking notice as are a growing share of American Households according to a recent Pew Research Center article.

Check out the full podcast, where they discuss other examples of cancellation, how people can handle a crisis on their own, and more, here.