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The Culture War: Brands as Collateral Damage

Brands shouldn't preach moral behaviour to adults.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

There’s a cul­ture war raging for our minds.

It’s the social justice war­ri­ors versus the pop­u­list­ic tra­di­tion­al­ists. They con­sume much more than their fair share of the online agenda.

Where does this leave the rest of us?
Where does this leave reg­u­lar businesses?

Let’s dive right into it:

The Just War Theory

Today’s cul­ture war is a jus bel­lum justum (a just war) for our mor­al values.

The just war the­ory dic­tates that “[… ] war, while ter­rible (but less so with the right con­duct), is not always the worst option. Important respons­ib­il­it­ies, undesir­able out­comes, or pre­vent­able atro­cit­ies may jus­ti­fy war.” 1Just war the­ory. (2023, November 14). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​u​s​t​_​w​a​r​_​t​h​e​ory

And this cul­ture war is spelling dev­ast­at­ing con­sequences for busi­nesses world­wide. Wokeness. Populism. De-plat­form­ing. Cancel cul­ture. Political cor­rect­ness. Bot attacks. Free speech infringe­ments. Coördinated troll attacks. Reputation destruction. 

Businesses are try­ing to rise to the chal­lenge, but how?

To start, we need to under­stand this polar­ised media landscape.

The Publics of the Culture War

So, how should your busi­ness nav­ig­ate this inflam­mat­ory cul­ture war? 

We can identi­fy three crit­ic­al online pub­lics based on how they com­mu­nic­ate their under­ly­ing mor­al philo­sophy. And they use the inter­net as their primary tool for organ­ising them­selves and exert­ing mor­al extortion.

Social Justice Warriors will not accept any per­ceived “injustice.” They regard them­selves as mor­ally super­i­or and see all oppon­ents as imme­di­ate threats to their con­vic­tions. According to this pub­lic, online aggres­sion is an appro­pri­ate polit­ic­al expres­sion (if per­pet­rated by them­selves).

Read also: Cancel Culture — A Serious PR Problem

Populistic Traditionalists see “com­mon sense” derived from gen­er­a­tions of empir­ic­al mor­al insights to trump all oth­er forms of dis­cern­ment. They cel­eb­rate homo­gen­eity and pat­ri­ot­ism and are often reli­gious. According to this pub­lic, online aggres­sion is a prop­er polit­ic­al expres­sion (if per­pet­rated by them­selves).

Read also: How To Fight Populism

The Silent Majority are mod­er­ately inves­ted in mor­al philo­sophy; they are more focused on mak­ing ends meet in their per­son­al lives. They avoid tak­ing any such aggress­ive stands — at least pub­licly. However, they con­tinu­ally “vote” online by click­ing, watch­ing, read­ing, and listen­ing.

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

How should a brand nav­ig­ate this cul­ture war?
Either pick a side and stick with it — or steer clear?

The Art of Online Grandstanding

For any brand strug­gling with envir­on­ment­al, social, and gov­ernance (ESG) issues, it’s tempt­ing to try and score quick points with short-lived pub­lic “out­rages.”

Businesses that pose as beacons for mor­al mod­el­ling could gain trac­tion with the chosen minority.

But does grand­stand­ing make busi­ness sense?

From a pub­lic rela­tions per­spect­ive, con­flicts such as these could fuel media atten­tion, but it’s far from evid­ent that these brands will increase their mar­ket shares; the share-of-voice for the loudest agit­at­ors is rarely pro­por­tion­al to their actu­al numbers. 

Gillette: The Toxic-Masculinity Misfire

A recent example would be Gillette’s cam­paign, which attacked its cus­tom­er base with accus­a­tions of not being account­able enough for tox­ic masculinity.

Of course, it back­fired.
Perhaps also affect­ing stock prices immediately.

That raises the ques­tion of wheth­er Gillette’s fin­an­cial res­ults are suf­fer­ing because of its tox­ic-mas­culin­ity mis­fire. On Tuesday, Procter & Gamble (PG) beat earn­ings and rev­en­ue fore­casts, but the stock fell 3% on a day the S&P 500 closed at a new high.”
Don’t Blame My Toxic Masculinity for Gillette’s Woes by Jack Hough, Barron’s

In short:

Most brands will likely do bet­ter if they real­ise that it’s not their core busi­ness to teach grown-ups about what con­sti­tutes mor­al behaviour.

Few ordin­ary busi­nesses are suited to serve as mouth­pieces for hun­dreds — or even thou­sands — of cowork­ers. Or cus­tom­ers, some­times in their millions.

Like me, you prob­ably have your mor­al con­vic­tions, but these con­vic­tions aren’t neces­sar­ily the right baseline for all cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tions activities.

Moral Conformity and HR

Brands must stand for some­thing and be brave enough to see these fights through. A brand must find its core mes­sage, which must res­on­ate with own­ers, lead­ers, cowork­ers, and customers.

But the cul­ture war isn’t just a PR chal­lenge; the found­a­tion for long-term stra­tegic suc­cess in man­aging the organ­isa­tion­al cul­ture befalls HR, too. 

HR is being encour­aged to hire and fire with diversity in mind. But when it comes to mor­al con­vic­tions, diversity of thought sud­denly becomes the num­ber one enemy of the HR department.

Today, HR must decide wheth­er to hire or fire based on con­flict­ing mor­al stand­ards. You must look dif­fer­ent, but sim­ul­tan­eously lack the trait of think­ing differently.

Finding cowork­ers that fit mor­al double stand­ards — while being a com­pet­ent, inde­pend­ent thinker at the same time — is an impossible HR strategy.

How To Navigate Cancel Culture

Spin Academy | Online PR Courses

Cancel Culture and 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 2Velasco, 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 3Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​n​c​e​l​_​c​u​l​t​ure

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 4Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing

Here’s how to nav­ig­ate the mor­al war as a business:

  • Avoid breezy grand­stand­ing. CSR- and ESG activ­it­ies should be laser-focused, clearly defined, and business-relevant.
  • Internally, cel­eb­rate the diversity of thought. Having cowork­ers who think dif­fer­ently is an asset to any busi­ness culture.
  • Don’t let the can­cel cul­ture intim­id­ate you. Protesters are loud and noisy, primar­ily online, but they don’t have the num­bers to match.
  • Direct your resources towards your brand com­munity. Most of your cus­tom­er base will be in the silent major­ity, not in the extremes.

Learn more: How To Navigate Cancel Culture

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Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: The High Road Tonality

The High Road Tonality

An organ­isa­tion is the total sum of all its cowork­ers. Imagine tak­ing the most mature traits from each cowork­er and com­bin­ing them into one voice — the High Road Tonality.

  • Openness. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that every­one must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Fairness. A mature organ­isa­tion will see (and respect) both sides of a divis­ive argument.
  • Strength. A mature organ­isa­tion is con­fid­ent in its chosen strategies and acquired abil­it­ies, not because they’re per­fect, but because they are grounded.
  • Wisdom. A mature organ­isa­tion will take their time to explain com­plex top­ics without condescending.
  • Humility. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that no one can have everything com­pletely figured out and that we all have learn­ing and grow­ing to do.

Learn more: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

💡 Subscribe and get a free ebook on how to get bet­ter PR ideas.

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Just war the­ory. (2023, November 14). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​u​s​t​_​w​a​r​_​t​h​e​ory
2 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/​1​0​.​2​1​6​5​9​/​r​u​p​k​a​t​h​a​.​v​1​2​n​5​.​r​i​o​c​1​s​2​1n2
3 Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​n​c​e​l​_​c​u​l​t​ure
4 Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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