You’re cancelled! — Learn how to live in the cancel culture world
A story by Raquel Sodré
Before we start this article, let me warn you: this is going to be a conversation with lots of space for debate. So, go get yourself a cup of tea, open your heart and let’s do this.
In 2019, Maquarie Dictionary elected “cancel culture” the word of the year. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, the dictionary itself defines it as “the practice of no longer supporting people, especially celebrities, or products that are regarded as unacceptable or problematic.”
As you can imagine, the topic couldn’t be more controversial, because, for starters, what is the exact definition of “unacceptable” and “problematic”? Whose standards are being used to define these criteria? And so controversy began. Some people state that “cancel culture” actually is not a real thing, while others think it has actually gone too far. In a third path, there are also skeptics who believe it simply doesn’t work.
On the 7th of July 2020, a group of 153 very prominent intellectuals published on Harper’s Magazine “a letter on justice and open debate”. When I say “very prominent”, I mean Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie prominent.
Although the document doesn’t use the specific term, it is pretty obvious that they are referring to cancel culture. Again, a wave of debate has sprung, with people on one side standing beside the signatories and others counter-argumenting it.
To be honest, even after thinking and rethinking, reading and reading even more about this topic, I haven’t made up my mind. Right now, I think I agree with Michael Hobbes and his article on Huffpost. Also, I still don’t know how to conciliate my trends and culture researcher self with my citizen self. And all of that is ok. This is a very complicated issue, and we don’t need to have an opinion for it right away.
That being said, I’m not going to discuss the merits. I am, though, going to help your brand navigate in today’s world, this world where people and companies can get “cancelled” — or not, depending on where you stand in this debate.
How to deal with cancel culture?
The first thing we need to clarify is that neutrality doesn’t exist anymore (has it ever?). People don’t just buy products, they consume values and elements that will allow them to state to the world who they are. This means that brands must clearly state their values, what they stand for and — why not — their political view. They must clearly know their purpose and make decisions according to it.
Whether your brand is an advocate for diversity, fights for a more sustainable lifestyle, wants to help deconstruct toxic masculinity or is just interested in maintaining the status quo, it all has to be reflected onto the brand’s communication and attitude. The public will demand that, sooner or later.
However, beware: every act has a corresponding reaction. This means that, being in the public arena, the possibility of your brand being in the center of a debate is real. Sometimes, your message may come out wrong and you risk offending a group of people. Or you don’t really know all the intricacies of a subject and, by approaching it with your brand, you can offend a group of people.
Of course, all our efforts go into avoiding such situations. Nonetheless, we’re humans, we all make mistakes — and brands, a human construct, do too. A crisis like this could have terrible consequences for the brand’s reputation, so it’s adamant that we handle this well.
More than any technical knowledge, there is a pack of soft skills that will help you deal with the situation. Let’s go through each of them.
Ability to listen
Have you ever had the experience of talking to someone and, in the very moment you spoke, your interlocutor elaborated the refutation reply in their mind? You probably have, because this is a very common behavior, both for individuals and for brands.
In order to deal with controversy, we must break this cycle. The first step on the road to not being cancelled is actually listening to your public and understanding what they have to say. Let them speak their minds and show you where you went wrong.
The second soft skill that will help you sort this whole situation out is empathy. If you still don’t exactly know what it means, check out this short video written and narrated by psychologist, best seller author and TED phenomenon Brené Brown:
Once you’ve listened to your public, can you picture yourself wearing their shoes and imagine how it would feel? This is a vital step to proceed in our positive relation with the brand’s public (and with public opinion in general).
You listened to your public, you understood their point, now you need to admit your error. And for that, my friend, you will need a whole lot of humility. Especially in a society like ours, where mistakes are seen as a weakness, admitting one is a perfect mix of humility, vulnerability and also courage. And trust me: this, right here, is where you’re going to win your public’s heart.
After you admit where you did wrong, the final step is to apologise to your public. The channel where the brand is going to publish the apology doesn’t matter, as long as the message is clear and the intentions are pure.
But an apology alone won’t do the trick. The brand must show to the public that it is doing everything it can to avoid repeating the same mistake. This means investing in education campaigns about the theme that generated the crisis, supporting an organization, changing some company’s policies — taking real measures.
Does this method work?
Yes, it does. And I have an example to prove. In early July 2020, Hollywood actor Hale Berry made a post on her Instagram implying that she would get involved in a project where she would interpret a transgender man.
Being Hale Berry a ciswoman (that is, a woman who identifies as a woman and was born in a woman body), she received a tsunami of critics on her social media. So, what did the star do? She followed exactly the steps described above. And this is the message she later published on her Instagram account:
“Over the weekend I had the opportunity to discuss my consideration of an upcoming role as a transgender man, and I’d like to apologize for those remarks. As a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories,” she wrote. “I am grateful for the guidance and critical conversation over the past few days and will continue to listen, educate and learn from this mistake. I vow to be an ally in using my voice to promote better representation on-screen, both in front of and behind the camera.”
Her admitting the mistake, sincerely apologising for it and taking measures made the public trust her and actually forgive her for her lapse. She didn’t get cancelled and is still a beloved artist for millions of people around the world.
In a nutshell, what all of this means is: make a choice, bear with the consequences, learn, grow, improve yourself. We’re all humans, we’re constantly learning, and people know that. Listen, be transparent, be humble, and you shall be compensated.
Now I want to know, how do you feel about cancel culture? And what’s your opinion about my suggested method to deal with it? I still have many questions and doubts about this topic, and I would love to discuss it with you. Leave a comment, let’s talk!
This is a story of the Futurist Club
Written by: Raquel Sodré
Raquel is a Lisbon-based communications specialist with a passion for telling stories and spotting trends. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Public Relations, and more than ten years’ experience covering a range of topics — including marketing, health, wellness, lifestyle, and science — as both a reporter for the O Tempo daily newspaper in Brazil and as a freelance writer. She also authored “História Bizarra da Psicologia” (2018), a non-fiction book for young adults. She is a native Portuguese (Brazilian) speaker, and fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian.
She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Culture and Communication at the University of Lisbon, and is a researcher at its Trends Studies and Culture Management Laboratory. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter (@kelsodre) to learn more about her work in lifestyle, cultural branding, tribal marketing, and trends studies.