Cancel culture is fast becoming a serious PR problem.
We celebrate diversity in the workplace but don’t encourage diversity in thoughts, opinions, or sense of humour.
Recently, three Red Bull employees got cancelled.
Based on having made a joke during a marketing meeting.
And Red Bull is being accused of being a racist company.
Here we go:
- Freedom of Opinion Is Fundamental
- Red Bull and the Inappropriate Joke
- Whistleblowing — Or Bad Faith Acting
- Businesses Aren’t Evil by Default
- CSR Must Be Strategic and Focused
- Integrity Instead of Grandstanding
- Cancel Culture = Bad-Faith Capitalism
- Cancel Culture on Social Media
- PR Resource: The Spiral of Silence
- PR Resource: The Amplification Hypothesis
- PR Resource: The Hostile Media Effect
Freedom of Opinion Is Fundamental
Erich Lüth, a Hamburg-based publicist active in the mid-20th century, garnered national recognition in 1950 with his call for a boycott. His campaign brought renewed attention to filmmaker Veit Harlan’s involvement with National Socialism, highlighting Harlan’s past as a Nazi-affiliated director responsible for the vehemently anti-Semitic film Jud Süß (1940). 1Jud Süß. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jud_S%C3%BC%C3%9F
Lüth urged the public to avoid Harlan’s post-war film, Immortal Lover (1951), in a newly democratic Germany that seemingly overlooked Harlan’s notorious history. This protest led Harlan’s production company to seek a legal injunction against Lüth’s public statements.
The ensuing legal battle ascended to the Federal Constitutional Court, culminating in the landmark Lüth ruling of 1958, which sided with Lüth by citing Article 5 of the German constitution, underscoring the fundamental right to freedom of opinion.
The Lüth ruling of 1958 reminds me of this quote:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
— Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire 2Evelyn Beatrice Hall. (2023, November 19). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Beatrice_Hall
Red Bull and the Inappropriate Joke
From 1958 in Germany, we fast-forward to a marketing meeting at Red Bull in the US:
A Red Bull employee showed a world map cartoon making fun of the stereotypical US-centric worldview:
This happened after an attempt to force the brand’s CSR strategy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement by circulating an online petition amongst Red Bull employees.
As a result, three high-level executives got fired — loudly accompanied by grandstanding media insinuations of Red Bull being a racist brand. 3As PR professionals, we should know as much from media training — just because someone with an opposing agenda implies that you’re something you’re not, you must never accept the implication.
In post-war Germany, they understood the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech — even when faced with anti-Semitism.
Today, we’re prepared to destroy lives based on offensive jokes.
Whistleblowing — Or Bad Faith Acting
“A whistleblower (also written as whistle-blower or whistle blower) is a person who exposes secretive information or activity within a private or public organisation that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct. The information of alleged wrongdoing can be classified in many ways: violation of company policy/rules, law, regulation, or threat to public interest/national security, as well as fraud, and corruption.”
Source: Wikipedia 4Whistleblowing. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistleblowing
Note that misrepresenting the intention of a joke or driving a personal activist agenda doesn’t fall under the definition of a whistleblower. Red Bull could fire the person who leaked the joke since they acted in bad faith to hurt the company or its employees.
Spreading misrepresentations and lobbying against an employer’s business strategy are reasonable grounds for termination — and should not be confused with whistleblowing.
Businesses Aren’t Evil by Default
There’s an entitled belief held by what seems to be a growing number of people in the communications industry that the PR function should be serving as the organisation’s guilty conscience. 5This belief stems from a romantic idea that capitalism is evil and that PR (maybe via CSR?) should balance this inherent malice.
This is an ideological perspective, not a professional one.
Individual social activism matters, but business must come first.
The PR function has one single purpose: to serve a strategic objective. In business, that objective is to generate profit. Such commerce generates tax incomes for the state, jobs for its citizens, and societal progress through innovation.
And this is how PR generates value in society, too.
CSR Must Be Strategic and Focused
Red Bull, for instance, has a long history of supporting extreme sports, and many of these activities have Red Bull to thank for developing into professional elites in their own right — and even Olympic sports in some cases.
Supporting the extreme sports community has been a strategically valuable and focused approach for the brand.
For CSR activities to be serving business objectives, any such activities must be a) strategic and b) focused.
Applying a clear and strategically limited focus on communication isn’t “evil”. And it indeed doesn’t imply bigotry or aggression in specific cases where the brand isn’t “being vocal enough.”
Integrity Instead of Grandstanding
Any PR adviser who demands that brands, in general, are morally responsible for siding with loud online lynch mobs and brandcallers has seriously misunderstood the purpose of the PR function — and business as well.
The solution is business integrity, not giving in to those who want to control your agenda. 6Shuraeva, L., & Korinets, A. (2023). Social effect of “cancel culture” on the digital environment: the case of generations Y and Z. Vestnik Universiteta. … Continue reading
As a champion for focused and strategically limited communication, the PR professional’s job is to assist the brand in standing up for itself.
Not to side with online lynch mobs.
Because a brand with integrity isn’t ashamed of being in business, it isn’t ashamed of providing outstanding products and services at great prices. It isn’t ashamed to provide tax income for the state and produce jobs for people. It isn’t ashamed of driving society forward through innovation, financial risk-taking, and hard work. 7Actually, I promote a Stoic approach to public relations. A business should strive for recognition through dignity by enduring the path of the obstacle.
In the case of Red Bull, the brand is making strategic and focused CSR contributions to the extreme sports movement.
Red Bull isn’t a cautionary tale; they’re a best-practice case study.
Few things in business make me sicker to the stomach than when communicators are shaming innovators, entrepreneurs, and financial risk-takers for not being woke enough.
Cancel Culture = Bad-Faith Capitalism
“Cancel culture may lead to shareholder lawsuits for breach of fiduciary duty, potentially reducing corporate profits.”
Source: Social Science Research Network 8McGee, R. (2021). Cancel Culture, Breach of Fiduciary Responsibility & Shareholder Lawsuits. Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/SSRN.3775117
As PR professionals, we know that the news media can sometimes become an unreasonable machine set to destroy businesses and individuals without a fair trial. Our job is to prepare and protect our brands from online lynch mobs.
Today, there is a whole new set of lynch mobs to account for:
Online activists use secret social media groups to drive de-platforming activities and impose cancel culture. They use deliberate misinterpretation, calls for boycotts, card-stacking, cherry-picking, and guilt-by-silence to coerce brands into submission. 9Silfwer, J. (2020, June 9). How to Speak with Social Activists. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/social-activists/
The behaviour amplifies polarisation by creating extremes of identity politics on both sides. This development is rapidly becoming more challenging to PR than the struggle of adapting to a digital society. 10Santos, E. (2020). The Internet and Cancellation Culture: The Impact of the Public Opinion on the Exercise of the Individual Right to Freedom of Expression. Annals of Bioethics & Clinical … Continue reading
If commercial communications departments accept the woke narrative without question, our profession becomes a cancerous and destructive anti-capitalistic force from within.
Piggybacking on political movements can be a viable PR strategy — if such a strategy makes business sense. 11Unfocused corporate cultural appropriation is not a “safe” brand strategy. Several big-name brands have gotten into serious trouble by shamelessly piggybacking on the social justice agenda.
Providing stable employment and salaries through innovation, collaboration, and hard work will always be the best catalyst for civil society to engage in social causes in their spare time — how it ought to be.
And while some businesses are out of touch with their communities, Red Bull surely doesn’t fall under that category.
Cancel Culture on Social Media
How to Navigate Cancel Culture on Social Media
“Cancel culture on social media is a form of public shaming that aims to diffuse public discourse and promote tolerance, but can also be viewed as a form of intolerance against opposing views.”
Source: Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 12Velasco, J. (2020). You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 12. … Continue reading
Cancel culture, de-platforming, and woke journalism are becoming challenging PR problems:
“Cancel culture or call-out culture is a phrase contemporary to the late 2010s and early 2020s used to refer to a form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles — whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘cancelled’.”
Source: Wikipedia 13Cancel culture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancel_culture
Public opinion often forces brands to de-platform individuals, partner organisations, advertisers, collaborators, etc.
“Deplatforming, also known as no-platforming, has been defined as an ‘attempt to boycott a group or individual through removing the platforms (such as speaking venues or websites) used to share information or ideas, or ‘the action or practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website’.”
Source: Wikipedia 14Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deplatforming
Here’s how to navigate the moral war as a business:
Learn more: How To Navigate Cancel Culture
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PR Resource: The Spiral of Silence
The Spiral of Silence
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1916 – 2010) well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure the publics to silence their opinions.
Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their genuine opinions.
“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916 – 2010)
As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the Opinion Corridor). 15Opinion corridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_corridor
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky
Learn more: The Spiral of Silence
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PR Resource: The Amplification Hypothesis
The Amplification Hypothesis
It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them.
The phenomenon is known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.
“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.“
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 16Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading
How does the amplification hypothesis work?
In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 17Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
Establishing common ground and exhibiting empathy demonstrates a genuine understanding of their perspective, fostering trust and openness to your ideas. Conversely, a strategic mismatch of attitudes can serve as a powerful countermeasure if your objective is to deflect persuasive attempts.
To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.
To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.
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PR Resource: The Hostile Media Effect
The Hostile Media Effect
Do you think that the news media is biased against your beliefs? Well, they might be. And they might also not be.
Researchers have found that individuals tend to see the news media as biased against them — even when it’s not:
“The hostile media effect […] is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the tendency for individuals with a strong preexisting attitude on an issue to perceive media coverage as biased against their side and in favour of their antagonists’ point of view.”
Source: Wikipedia 21Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect
Are we paranoid? Do we see bias in the news media that isn’t there? In short: Yes.
The hostile media effect doesn’t imply that the media is never biased. Still, science shows that opposing groups often regard the same articles as against them and favour their opponents.
The existence of the hostile media effect is scientifically well-established, but we still don’t know precisely why it persists:
“The hostile media perception, the tendency for partisans to judge mass media coverage as unfavorable to their own point of view, has been vividly demonstrated but not well explained. This contrast bias is intriguing because it appears to contradict a robust literature on assimilation biases — the tendency to find information more supportive, rather than more opposed, to one’s own position. […] content evaluations based on perceived influence on oneself vs influence on a broader audience suggested that the hostile media perception may be explained by perceived reach of the information source.”
Source: Journal of Communication 22Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55 – 70.
Research suggests that the primary driver could be fear of opponents gaining in strength, and the hostile media effect could, therefore, be seen as a psychological defence mechanism.
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|Jud Süß. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jud_S%C3%BC%C3%9F|
|Evelyn Beatrice Hall. (2023, November 19). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Beatrice_Hall|
|As PR professionals, we should know as much from media training — just because someone with an opposing agenda implies that you’re something you’re not, you must never accept the implication.|
|Whistleblowing. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistleblowing|
|This belief stems from a romantic idea that capitalism is evil and that PR (maybe via CSR?) should balance this inherent malice.|
|Shuraeva, L., & Korinets, A. (2023). Social effect of “cancel culture” on the digital environment: the case of generations Y and Z. Vestnik Universiteta. https://doi.org/10.26425/1816 – 4277-2022 – 12-248 – 256|
|Actually, I promote a Stoic approach to public relations. A business should strive for recognition through dignity by enduring the path of the obstacle.|
|McGee, R. (2021). Cancel Culture, Breach of Fiduciary Responsibility & Shareholder Lawsuits. Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/SSRN.3775117|
|Silfwer, J. (2020, June 9). How to Speak with Social Activists. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/social-activists/|
|Santos, E. (2020). The Internet and Cancellation Culture: The Impact of the Public Opinion on the Exercise of the Individual Right to Freedom of Expression. Annals of Bioethics & Clinical Applications, 4. https://doi.org/10.23880/ABCA-16000169|
|Unfocused corporate cultural appropriation is not a “safe” brand strategy. Several big-name brands have gotten into serious trouble by shamelessly piggybacking on the social justice agenda.|
|Velasco, J. (2020). You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 12. https://doi.org/10.21659/rupkatha.v12n5.rioc1s21n2|
|Cancel culture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancel_culture|
|Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deplatforming|
|Opinion corridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_corridor|
|Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810 – 825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192|
|Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.|
|Silfwer, J. (2017, June 13). Conversion Theory — Disproportionate Minority Influence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/conversion-theory/|
|Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.|
|Cognitive dissonance. (2023, November 20). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance|
|Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect|
|Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55 – 70.|