Tips for Protecting Your Brand in the Age of Cancel Culture

The internet can be an unforgiving place. It keeps a record of everything a brand or an executive puts out there. In the 2020 pressure chamber we’re living in, chances are high that if there is something controversial floating around, the internet will find and amplify it.

As communicators, we try to shape conversations. But there are thousands of small, hyper-connected sub-cultures online using their networks to shape narratives—often using brands as vehicles to drive their agendas. With the internet moving information rapidly, the challenge is that once a narrative is trending online, it is immediately perceived as true. This makes it feel like an impossible situation for communicators. Your team is scrambling. Respond or strategize? Before you know it, #cancelled.

What’s worse, once you're targeted online, there is a 75 percent likelihood it happens again within six months.

Traditional social listening doesn’t alert you to an event like this until after it’s too late to protect your company's integrity. It’s likely been days, or even weeks, since some small agenda-driven group first dug up the damaging information. Perhaps it's an old tweet, a campaign donation or video—and you had no idea you should be bracing for an internet takedown.

So, how can brand communicators accurately identify risks and opportunities within online conversations to avoid the long-term damage that comes with being cancelled?

It comes down to three overarching ideas:

Ring the Alarm Bell Early

Agenda-driven online groups know how to leverage the internet's power to drive influence. Brand communicators need to understand what motivates groups to catch a narrative in its earliest stages. Look for signs that accounts in a conversation aren’t legitimate:

  • Were they created within the last 2-3 months?
  • Is there a discrepancy in the number of followers they have and those they follow?
  • Do they post several times in the span of a few minutes?

These are early signs that an agenda-motivated group is driving a narrative and it has the potential to go viral. Knowing how to look for these initial red flags will allow you to assess risk and prepare for something potentially harmful.

Be Ready For Round 2...and 3

A successful disinformation campaign never really dies. This means you need to be continually preparing. Invest in better understanding the groups engaging with and influencing conversations around your brand, negative and positive. Go beyond looking at shares and likes. Analyze specific groups so you know: who they are, other groups they engage with and how they interact. Armed with knowledge of your adversaries and the influence of your allies, you can build communication strategies that get in front of potentially damaging hits to your brand reputation.

Lead with Purpose

87 percent of Americans will buy a product because its parent company advocated for an issue they care about. As we live in a world where any brand action (or inaction) can lead to long-term reputation damage, it’s important that brands align on their values and communicate them externally, from top to bottom. On an average day this will build positive support among consumers you value most. In the event of an online attack or disinformation campaign, this gives you a strong foundation to stand on and organically defend your brand and values.

33 percent of consumers said they stopped using a brand whose pandemic response was not up to their standards. As we continue to spend more time online, we can expect peer-to-peer persuasion to grow. Navigating this communication mine field can be daunting.

Advantage will go to those who look into all corners of the web, where viral narratives start and those prepared to respond based on confidence in alignment of their brand values with their most valued customers.

Lisa Roberts is CMO of Yonder