(Re)defining brand activism: How to not get cancelled

Sarah Jampen Almazan

It’s been almost a decade since Justine Sacco sent out a tweet that read “Going to Africa! Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” and embarked on the fateful transatlantic commute that would end her job and nearly her career. By the time the IAC PR executive’s flight was over, #HasJustineLandedYet was trending across the globe, her reputation was ruined, and the world would learn a valuable lesson: nothing travels faster than an offensive tweet.


This event ushered in the era of cancel culture, the online phenomenon that has tenured professors, comedians, business leaders and children’s fantasy book authors all terrified, and it has only intensified over the years.


What is cancel culture?

The words “cancel culture” have become highly politicized and have even been likened to a right-wing moral panic by journalist Michael Hobbes. For the purposes of this article, we consider that a “cancellation” is an event in which a significant group of online users identifies a public statement or action as offensive or hypocritical and collectively hold a brand, powerful figurehead, or public personality accountable by calling them out and demanding change. (We will not be addressing examples in which the target of the outrage is a private citizen.)

Whether you think it’s fair or not, the virality of moral outrage content makes it very easy for online audiences to keep public personalities and brands accountable for their actions and the messages they put out in the world.


How can brands navigate cancel culture?

We sat down with Caroline Goggin, a Washington, DC–based PR and crisis management consultant, to get the 411 on how brands can avoid a cancellation event. Goggin helps companies take genuine and tangible action on today’s most pressing social issues through her agency, Upcause PR. She is also the co-founder of Brands Take Action, a subscription-based service that helps businesses avoid a crisis of their own making by providing them with the blueprint for this new era of brand activism.

Goggin believes that, today, brand activism and social impact campaigns need to be integrated into the way companies do business. In fact, she also thinks that “P for perception” needs to become a key part of any brand’s marketing mix.

“What we’re seeing today, when a company is taking a stand on a social issue, is that you really have to be looking at it from a 360-degree perspective,” she says. “It is not a marketing campaign. It is literally the way that businesses are doing business because expectations from employees and their consumers are changing.”

There is data to support this fundamental change in expectations. In their 2021 Millenial and Gen Z Survey, Deloitte observed that one of the most consistent findings over the past decade was that these younger generations believe that business has 1) a responsibility to improve society and the greatest potential to drive change, and 2) that currently organizations and their leaders are not living up to this expectation. Additionally, they found that there was an increasing correlation between employee satisfaction and company purpose.


Understanding the new rules of accountability

One of the important things to remember is that the new rules of accountability go far beyond what’s legal or not.

“It’s not that public perception has nothing to do with legality,” says Goggin. “If your CEO does something illegal, then that’s a huge PR crisis for your company. So it’s not that it’s completely unrelated. It’s just that public perception is so much bigger than that. There is a court of public opinion. People aren’t waiting for your legal dispute to make it through a court system.”

When you think about your brand’s public perception, you need to think beyond legal liability. For example, consumers don’t care about what’s technically legal under IP law or not. If they see something that they deem cultural appropriation or exploitation of an independent creator, they will call you out.



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Balancing timeliness and thoughtfulness

“When you’re in the midst of a crisis PR crisis, we’re talking hours, not days, to make a statement,” explains Goggin. “We’re not even talking 24 hours — it needs to be addressed that day. Now, that being said, it has to be a real crisis, like a crisis of scale.”

Striking a balance between timeliness and thoughtfulness can be really tricky when drafting an emergency communications plan. An event like a data leak can be handled with a quick comms blast that updates your customers about an ongoing situation. While product defects can have serious consequences, these are not situations that will be aggravated by a speedy update and apology.


Before you click “publish” 

Ask yourself: Will this reach my community?
Not every detractor post is worth your attention. If someone with 34 followers posted a negative comment on your brand, addressing it will only call more attention to yourself. As a rule of thumb, the bigger and more relevant the audience, the faster you need to act. Any situation that is unlikely to reach your customers, employees or business partners is not a situation at all.



Escalating to the right stakeholders

Cancellations tend to happen when emotionally charged social issues are mishandled and the ensuing apology does not have the appropriate gravitas.

“You really want multiple decision makers in the room: your comms people, the CEO or executive who was going to take the blame for it and, depending on the situation, you might need legal,” Goggin. “And you might need HR in the room if it could affect someone’s job or the company’s morale.”

When addressing a crisis of scale, the response and the team working on it should reflect the importance of the event for the brand’s community.


Prioritizing internal communications

“If you’re putting anything out publicly, you need to address it with your employees at the same time, or first. Your employees should never be told second to your consumers if it’s something that affects them.”

Goggin states updating health and safety measures is a fairly obvious example but also mentions declarations of support for social issues as tricky territory. This brings us to our next point…


Make sure to clean house first

Your employees are some of your most valuable promoters. On the flip side, they can quickly become one of your most vocal and credible detractors. 

“You cannot go out there going #BlackLivesMatter and you don’t have a single black employee or you don’t have equal pay.”

Goggin goes on to mention the misstep of coworking space The Wing, which came out in support of #BlackLivesMatter by announcing a donation to the NAACP. Immediately following this post, current and former employees called out the female-only business for its toxic girlboss culture, for failing to support BIPOC employees in racist incidents, and for only promoting white women. The performative allyship attracted so much internal ire and media attention that employees staged a digital walkout, and eventually the company’s founding CEO had to step down.



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Before you click “publish” 

Ask yourself: Do I have the fluency to address this?
A well-intentioned public statement can quickly go sideways if you didn’t research a social movement’s history or update your vocabulary accordingly. A good litmus test is whether or not you are a part of the affected community. If the answer is no, chances are you have some self-educating to do.


Breaking down silos

“Because giant companies totally like segmentation [related to corporate social responsibility], they will have their marketing teams looking at their social media calendars and going, ‘Oh right, It’s mental Health Awareness Month, we should do some posts around mental health,’” says Goggin.

When your marketing team is isolated from the rest of your company, you might run into them publishing what they think is PC content without realizing that they are about to make a hypocritical statement. A comically obvious example is the carbon footprint reduction campaign launched by BP Oil in October 2019.



Before you click “publish” 

Ask yourself: Am I the villain in this story?
Before you ask people to give their support to an issue, you better make sure that you’ve done right by it first.


Back it up with action

“When a brand speaks up about a social issue, they are now on the hook to continue that work and talk about adjacent issues,” states Goggin. “Because this is sustained and ongoing work, you will be expected to follow up with it. To come back to #BlackLivesMatter, if you spoke up about George Floyd’s murder and made a commitment to anti-racism, know that when the first anniversary of his death comes up, people will ask, ‘What have you done? What’s the progress? What were your benchmarks?’ Know that you will be accountable for the things you say.”

This comes back to the need for making your CSR campaign a 360-degree effort, and making sure that any outward statement is paired with very real internal action.


Stay in your lane

“​​Stay in your industry, talk about how it affects your community, and then take action around that thing. If you’re a bank or you’re a VC fund, it is actually within your own ability to effect change in that small piece of the puzzle.”

If you’re going to be expected to follow up on an issue aeternam, you might as well take one up that makes sense for your business. Taking up a cause that your community cares about will ensure that your investment in internal knowledge and action is a long-term one that will pay in employee and customer loyalty. 



The same advice applies to the kind of solutions you offer: the more related to your industry or area of expertise, the better.



“Social movements are broad, they are complex, they are multi-topic,” says Goggin. “Pick the piece that is the most relevant to you and your community and start there. It’s okay to start small.”

In sum, figure how your company is uniquely positioned to help with this issue and how it can create real systemic change.



Eliminating barriers to entry

On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of C2, we launched an initiative called C2² aimed at creating an inclusive business ecosystem by giving young people from diverse backgrounds access to C2 Montréal. Our goal is to celebrate, elevate and grow a community of creative young business leaders by distributing 6,000 online passes to 18-35 year olds who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend C2 Montréal.

Questions or comments? Drop us a line at editorial@c2.biz