The last few years, filled with political turmoil, increased conversations around race and representation, growing use of social media for business purposes, and an ever-increasing expectation for brand transparency, made way for cancel culture as a permanent staple in our society. Can PR agencies help? Absolutely. But perhaps not in the way some might assume.
Public relations may have got its start back in the 1890s, but many still don’t understand the purpose behind the practice. Those misinformed, might think the role of a PR pro in cancel culture would be to cover up a CEO or brand’s mistake and “spin” what actually happened to fool the public. In reality, public relations, or more specifically the PR practice of crisis communications, is a useful tool for creating authentic conversations between a brand and its communities, offering statements of transparency, perhaps an apology, and providing guidance on rectifying a situation in real time.
Here are a few examples of situations where better PR support would’ve been helpful:
Ellen DeGeneres landed in hot water when allegations of a toxic work environment arose in 2020. While she appropriately issued an apology, the statement incorporated her hallmark humor, which didn’t reflect the severity of the allegations and left fans feeling as if she were making light of the situation.
The Ellen DeGeneres apology taught us that a lighthearted “I’m sorry” from celebrities can miss the mark in serious situations. Rather, brands must be able to identify if it’s best to step away from their usual brand identity to respond to a crisis in a more serious and appropriate tone. If further actions, like a new workplace policy, are needed to show their commitment to serious causes, those should be shared as part of the apology as well.
In 2015, 60 cases of E. Coli poisoning across 14 different states were reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in connection with Chipotle restaurants. The restaurant chain faced backlash for its initial response to these reports, sidestepping blame and creating distrust in Chipotle’s consumer base that had come to respect the company for their progressive policies and workplace culture. Chipotle eventually issued a press release on its improved cooking methods and food safety guidelines and issued an apology from founder Steve Ells that seemed to appease most consumers.
What the Chipotle outbreak taught us is that full transparency and continued communication to stakeholders is key in maintaining customer trust, especially during a crisis. It also taught us that crisis communication plans need to be in place BEFORE a crisis so a brand can take the right steps to maneuver such a scenario in real-time.
Here are two examples that showcase how PR support helped navigate a situation that easily could’ve resulted in a permanent #cancelled status:
The notorious 2017 Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was quickly criticized for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement. After backlash, Pepsi immediately pulled the commercial and issued a statement, saying, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
The removal of the commercial and their timely and thoughtful statement showcased Pepsi’s understanding of their misstep, even with the best of intentions. Having a public relations pro on your side to help you craft a message that utilizes a core understanding of your brand values, your customer base and the social climate, allows brands the opportunity to get their apology right the first time and prevent a steady stream of reputation breaking mistakes.
Popular children’s book author Dr. Seuss was targeted by cancel culture in early 2021 for racially insensitive depictions of Black and Asian characters in six of his popular books. In response to backlash, Dr. Seuss Enterprises worked with experts to review the books and made the decision to end their publication, stating, “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”
The company could have taken the opportunity to defend these racist depictions, arguing that these books were reflective of the time in which they were written. Rather, the company chose to listen to its stakeholders, understand the shift in what is socially acceptable and take action to align itself with these new standards of conduct. Their actions prevented the permanent “cancelling” of Dr. Seuss and instead shifted perception to focus on the growth opportunity this gave the company.
Businesses, brands and individuals need to be prepared to respond to various crises and manage cancel culture. If you or your company are looking for support with proactive or reactive crisis communications, reach out to NST today.