Amidst cancel culture, public relations is the lawyer in the court of public opinion

Posted on September 17, 2020

Nicole Herback, Account Coordinator

Why reputation management is crucial to avoid and atone for mistakes in the public arena

Much has been written on cancel culture and the sharp downfall that notable figures and organizations have experienced in recent years. Some of these stories have impressive comebacks, while others fade away into the unknown. Whether just a few missteps or a major transgression brought to light decades later, anyone can have their reputation rebuked in an instant.

In the public relations profession, cancel culture highlights the importance of reputation management and the delicate relationship between a brand and its audience. Public relations differs from our close cousins in marketing and advertising because it is defined by two-way communication as opposed to one-way communication, and relies on an element of trust between the two parties to communicate and coexist successfully.

As you might be able to guess, losing that trust can be detrimental to a brand. I can think of over half a dozen highly revered institutions in the past three years who have fallen from grace after repeated mistakes and poorly managed recovery plans. Even more unfortunate is that those who fall out of favour are often the people and organizations that we trusted the most.

This begs the question: What do you do if you are #cancelled, and how can you avoid it?

Well, the best way to avoid criticism is to never make a mistake or have anything bad happen to you. We know that isn’t practical advice to give to a client – or anyone for that matter – so the next best practice is to acknowledge an issue (even if only internal), be transparent, and own up to any mistakes. Much like an open and shut case, brands need to acknowledge issues fully, leaving no doubt behind in the stakeholder’s mind that a problem has been adequately addressed. If handled well, an organization can with time come out of a crisis with an even better, more authentic brand image than it started with.

As PR professionals, we know that the best way to react to a crisis is to be prepared. Establishing a chain of communication, designating a spokesperson, and understanding a brand and its audiences are among the elements that are key in times of crisis – when time is never on your side. If an organization is really prepared, they would have a crisis communications plan on hand outlining exact processes and predetermined responses to any issue that might arise.

As public relations professionals, we can have skin in the game from any angle in cancel culture. We could advise the cancelled, those doing the cancelling, or even an unsuspecting stakeholder that has barely had enough time to get caught up on a scandal by the time their mentions are flooding with angry users. When crisis seems to be hitting from all directions, PR professionals can provide support for digital communications while also braving the media storm from a traditional news sense. In a society where we are all so interconnected, one damaged reputation can have detrimental ripple effects. Public relations is like the lawyer in the court of public opinion where we come to a mutual understanding with our audiences.

The abrupt nature of cancel culture highlights the intolerance that the public has developed toward what is considered to be inappropriate or offensive behaviour. People have grown impatient with recycled statements and are tired of seeing buzzwords such as “growth” and “reflection” used time and time again, only to be in hot water months later for a similar offence. For those in the public eye, it is even more crucial to be aware and prepared due to a higher level of scrutiny.

In another sense, cancel culture has made way for audiences to conduct checks and balances in a way perhaps more impactful than ever before. One could argue that organizations and brands have a heightened sense of accountability as their customers and stakeholders have come to realize the power they hold.

Either way, public relations serves a versatile role within the context of cancel culture. Amidst the chaos that can be likened to the free fall of a rollercoaster, public relations professionals are here to provide steadfast, unflappable direction to come out on top – or at least above water.

Nicole is a Account Coordinator at Brookline Public Relations. She is a writer at heart and thrives creating anything from a long-lead op-ed to a clever Instagram caption.