How business leaders can protect themselves from negative press online

By Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of red banyan, a public relations firm for global crises. Co-author of The Cancel Culture Curse and author of the Amazon bestseller Crisis Averted

Cancel culture: It’s a buzzword that seems to be popping up everywhere, and for good reason. Like it or not, cancel culture is changing people’s lives. Comics can be canceled because critics don’t like their jokes, celebrities can be canceled because people disagree with their policies, and private individuals can be canceled because someone didn’t like something they posted online.

Recognizing an online attack and having a plan to deal with the aftermath can help companies and leaders avoid negative consequences. Unfortunately, these situations often happen without warning. Having a crisis plan in place can be the key to weathering online accusations and coming out the other side as unscathed as possible.

Understand the definition of cancel culture

Cancel culture can foster a climate of fear. Cancel culture involves removing status or esteem from someone or something based on behavior or comments that someone finds offensive. Accusers select their target and then rally the troops in a call to action, sometimes based on false accusations. Fallout can be fast, furious, and extremely damaging.

Meanwhile, online accusers can hide behind fictitious names or false addresses so they can operate with virtual anonymity. Responding can be difficult, as obscene claims can quickly spiral out of control online. Situations like these can be just as harmful for politicians, musicians and artists as they are for ordinary citizens.

There are few downsides for attackers, who may not get caught if they operate anonymously. And because cancel culture is internet-based, it knows no boundaries, so there’s no limit to the number of people who can participate.

Be aware or beware

The simple truth is that cancel culture can happen to you. Famous or not, you could become the target of an online attack that could explode into the kind of firestorm you never dreamed possible. Post an unpopular comment on social media and the fallout can be immediate. Some people tend to err on the side of outrage and can spring into action and do lasting damage at lightning speed. And if you have no idea how to stem the downward spiral, the results for your business or career can be breathtaking.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, approximately 61% of adults in the US have heard at least a fair amount of the phrase “cancel culture,” up from 44% in September 2020. But despite increased awareness nationally, four out of 10 people say they haven’t heard much about cancel culture or haven’t heard the phrase at all.

The subject is highly politicized, and Pew research has shown that cancel culture can mean different things to different people. According to the survey, 51% of US adults say that calling people names on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 45% say it is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it. Some see cancel culture as a form of censorship that restricts free speech.

Regardless of where you are, here’s what business leaders and entrepreneurs can do to avoid it.

share with care As I’ve recommended before, always post with purpose and share with care. It’s wise advice that can go a long way toward avoiding online conflicts that can cause long-term reputational damage. Because the Internet can be so unpredictable, being proactive in preserving your company’s reputation can yield more positive results than being reactive.

Before hitting “send”, carefully check social media posts for anything that could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Being reckless can result in unintended consequences for you or your business that can be difficult to reverse. If you’re not sure about something, err on the side of caution and don’t post. If you think your post could be misunderstood, please edit it or not publish it. A detractor could fight back online in style and stir up a hornet’s nest.

plan ahead

Creating a crisis response plan is a proactive way to prepare for the worst should you or your business face a social media meltdown. Hoping for the best is not advisable. Having a clear plan of action is the best way to help you in an emergency. Here are some cancel culture crisis communication tips:

• Establish a social media policy.

• Coordinate your messages.

• Place damage controls before you need them.

• Reduce negative content with positive content.

• Apologize if you made a mistake.

• Respond to feedback with care.

• Make conversations offline if needed.

Underestimating the effects of “cancel culture” on your reputation or business could be a mistake. Publish wisely, remain vigilant, and always have a plan in place to protect your online reputation.

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