How To Navigate the Culture War

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

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.”

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.

Online Jurors and Judges

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: Woke is a Fucking 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. 

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

Investment advisor Jack Hough writes:

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.”

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 no. 1 enemy of the HR department.

Today, HR must decide wheth­er to hire or fire based on mor­al clas­si­fic­a­tion — or com­pet­ence levels. It’s a tough choice for many.

The abil­ity to find cowork­ers with highly com­pat­ible mor­als, yet are still highly diverse in every oth­er way, is an impossible HR strategy.

How to Navigate the Culture War (and Avoid Cancel Culture)

Cancel cul­ture can be a chal­len­ging PR prob­lem:

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 1Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia.

Public opin­ion often forces brands to deplat­form 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 2Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia.

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 dif­fer­ent think­ing. Having cowork­ers who think dif­fer­ently is an asset to any busi­ness culture.
  • Don’t let the call-out cul­ture intim­id­ate you. Protesters are loud and noisy, primar­ily online, but they don’t have the num­bers to match.
  • Focus your PR strategy on the silent major­ity. Most of your cus­tom­er base will be in the silent major­ity, not in the extremes.

Read also: How To Navigate the Culture War

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

Additional Resources

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 condescendence.
  • Humility. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that no one can have everything com­pletely figured out and that we all have learn­ing and grow­ing to do.

Read also: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

1 Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia.
2 Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The harder you attack someone publicly, the more you convince their fans of their existing belief, not yours.
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