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Cancel Culture is a Serious PR Problem

If we lose business integrity, we lose business, period.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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.

And we know as much from media train­ing — just because someone with an altern­ate agenda implies that you’re some­thing you’re not, you must nev­er accept the implication.

Red Bull recently got put to the test:

Red Bull and the Inappropriate Joke

At a recent mar­ket­ing meet­ing, a Red Bull employ­ee showed a world map car­toon mak­ing fun of the ste­reo­typ­ic­al US-cent­ric (and some­times ignor­ant about the import­ance of oth­er nations) worldview. 

Red Bull leaked world map joke
Not my type of humour, but also not a cor­por­ate mes­sage to pro­mote racism.

In response, the joke was leaked to pun­ish the not-woke-enough cor­por­ate culture. 

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. 

Whistleblowing — Or Bad Faith Acting

Make no mis­take about it: 

Spreading mis­rep­res­ent­a­tions and lob­by­ing against an employer’s busi­ness strategy are reas­on­able grounds for ter­min­a­tion — and should not be con­fused with whistleblowing. 

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

Note that mis­rep­res­ent­ing the inten­tion of a joke or driv­ing a per­son­al act­iv­ist agenda doesn’t fall under this defin­i­tion. Red Bull should be clear about fir­ing exec­ut­ives as they acted in bad faith against the company.

So, what’s the problem?

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. 

This 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, for sure, not a pro­fes­sion­al one.

Social act­iv­ism can be a power­ful PR tool, 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.

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. 1Actually, 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.

Woke is Bad-Faith Capitalism

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 lynch mobs and brand­callers 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. 

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. 

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. 2Unfocused cor­por­ate cul­tur­al appro­pri­ation is not a “safe” brand strategy, either. Several big-name brands have got­ten into ser­i­ous trouble by shame­lessly piggy­back­ing on the social justice … Continue read­ing

Consider this:

A truly diverse organ­isa­tion allows employ­ees of dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al per­sua­sions to work side-by-side towards a com­mon busi­ness goal. 

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.

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

1 Actually, I pro­mote a Stoic approach to pub­lic rela­tions. A busi­ness should strive for recog­ni­tion through dig­nity by endur­ing the path of the obstacle.
2 Unfocused cor­por­ate cul­tur­al appro­pri­ation is not a “safe” brand strategy, either. Several big-name brands have got­ten into ser­i­ous trouble by shame­lessly piggy­back­ing on the social justice agenda.
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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