The PR BlogPR TrendsCultural MovementsHow To Navigate the Culture War

How To Navigate the Culture War

Brands shouldn't preach moral behaviour to adults.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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. Coordinated 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 serve as fuel for 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 if they should hire and 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

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

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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