While the term, “cancel culture” is relatively new, the concept is not. Anyone who has spent any significant number of years in crisis communications or crisis management has had to deal with forces working to destroy, ruin and cancel their targets.
As a result, we’ve developed effective strategies, tactics and approaches to situations where you or your organization is under unfair attack.
What’s changed is that these are unique times. The common arenas where public debate happens are less likely to foster a level playing field. News media bias is so prevalent that journalists themselves don’t realize their own confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance that prevent them from even recognizing that there could be two sides to the same issue, each deserving of balanced coverage.
Cognitive dissonance causes a journalist who believes so strongly in something that when presented with facts contrary to their own predispositions, they still reject it out of hand if for no other reason than the new information does not comport with their own personal worldview.
Somewhat distinct, but not totally unrelated, is the social media ecosystem. Not only is that system built on generating clicks, shares and likes, often fueled by outrage, hate and emotion, but the platforms themselves house armies of anonymous arbiters of content, and it doesn’t stop there.
Twitter, for example, is quietly moving forward with a pilot program called “Birdwatch,” where it actively encourages users to report other users for the stated purpose of policing “misinformation.”
What constitutes misinformation, and what will happen to violators? The company isn’t saying. Time will tell, but it’s naïve to think that such a program can’t or won’t lead to an over-reach, and biased and selective enforcement.
Social media’s arbiters, sometimes including bots and algorithms, are programmed and trained to weed out thought that goes against an accepted corporate narrative. In other words, they know their bias, and they enforce it.
So, what can you do if you’re targeted for cancellation? Here are some universal themes:
#1 – You will lose some friends and allies.
Once you are targeted, you will lose a certain number of friends and allies who will distance themselves from you. It can be argued that they were never really friends to begin with, but such thinking is a waste of valuable energy and focus.
Just know you will lose support from some who you always thought would be by your side when the going got tough. Don’t let that influence your thinking or behavior.
You will lose social media followings. You may lose business partners or a few customers. Some may even make a public statement distancing themselves from you to send a signal to the mob that they should not be its next target.
#2 – The basis for the charges against you is not the basis for the charges against you.
Trying to defend yourself on the merits of your position is what your cancellers want you to do. They want you to waste valuable time and energy from a defensive posture. They want you to accept the premise of their charges hastening your own cancellation.
Let’s say you wrote a blog post about a social issue and your attackers gravitated to a phrase or paragraph in that blog post that they use to try to paint you as insensitive or uncaring. The worst thing you can do is to keep your response centered only on the words your critics claim to have a problem with.
This may seem counter-intuitive, and it goes against conventional thinking of crisis response, but these are new times with new challenges. The old assumption was that there is this vast, neutral and open-minded news media and public out there that seeks objectivity and the truth. Social media and the current media climate have proven this is not the case.
More to the point, social media and most current news media formulas are based on the understanding that people want affirmation of their own attitudes and that’s how they seek media or even so-called fact-checkers they trust. For the news and information consumer, it’s all about confirmation bias.
So, instead of focusing on the literal meaning of the allegations against you, focus instead on who they are, what they are trying to achieve, who or what they are ultimately trying to take down, and how you may fit into that puzzle.
#3 – If you are in the right, stand strong.
Only you can know that you are right in your position and that you are in the right when taking it. But if you are convinced that morally, ethically in accordance with your strongest-held values, and there is nothing wrong with your position, stick with it.
Don’t apologize, don’t waffle. Don’t try to appease your critics by affirming some, but not all, of their criticisms of you. If you are true to your own values and position, don’t compromise.
This is not to say you have to uncharacteristically begin to take divisive public stances on an issue, particularly if it’s out of character. It just means you don’t have to change.
If you have been speaking out, keep speaking out, even if it leads to more widespread attention. Actually, that can work in your favor.
Figuratively speaking, the mob is playing the role of the bully, even if unironically, it’s trying to frame you as one. And figuratively speaking, thousands if not millions of years of human evolution has proven that one of the most effective strategies for dealing with a bully is to counter-punch, with impact and with consistency until the bullying stops.
If you have allies, tap them. If you have friends, call on them for support. If you have a platform, use it. If you have a message, make it powerful, simple and clear.
If you have friends who are providing support privately, but who tell you they are afraid of what will happen to them if they support you publicly, respect that.
#4 – New allies will emerge.
Depending on the issue and the make-up of your attackers, you may find that the following ancient proverb may make itself known to you: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
I’ve talked to numerous free speech advocates over the past year, all of whom are vehemently against the current climate of censorship, particularly the online variety. Some are historically from the far left and others from the far right, but the one thing they share is that they don’t want the arena of information and ideas to be hijacked by an oligarchy of people who allege that censorship is in the public’s best interest. These unlikely free speech allies have placed their common ground before their differences, at least on this issue.
Knowing the wisdom behind this ancient proverb, it only makes sense to look for unconventional allies when you find yourself under attack. Don’t wait for them to come to you. In the end, chances are you will find them.
#5 – Pick your battles and your battleground.
While maintaining a steadfast commitment to your values, this does not mean you have to fight every battle that presents itself.
In 1856, Edward Hayes wrote “Ballads of Ireland,” where he described Oliver Cromwell’s instructions to his army when he was a British military commander in the 17th century.
Hayes said of Cromwell, “On a certain occasion, when his troops were about crossing a river to attack the enemy, he concluded an address, couched in the usual fanatic terms in use among them, with these words – ‘put your trust in God; but mind to keep your powder dry’.”
In other words, it’s good to have faith in God and feel you are in the right, and that right always wins, but you still have to take care of business on your end. You have to do the practical things. In Cromwell’s case, it was something as simple as being sure to protect that gun powder in those guns for when they really needed it.
The words were so sound as a military strategy and as a metaphor for any kind of battle, that they have been used countless times ever since to describe effective conflict strategy.
To keep your powder dry in a cancel culture scenario simply means to save your most important arguments, your most potent tactics and resources, and your most valued allies, for scenarios when they are most needed and where they can most significantly affect the larger outcome.
In practical terms, this may mean avoiding public meetings or events where you can’t win. It may mean not engaging in good faith with some attackers who wish you harm. And not accepting every news media interview that comes your way. You don’t want to give your opponents the rhetorical weapons with which to ruin you.
#6 – Manage your own expectations.
Once you’ve decided your values are worth taking a stand for, know you could pay a price. As stated, in addition to those friends you lost, you could alienate family. You could lose access to social media platforms. You could lose your job or that next promotion. And again, you could lose clients and other business relationships.
If the issue is that important, your purpose is not to ignore or downplay the real-world consequences of taking a stand on it. Rather, it is to find a new equilibrium that eliminates apprehension going forward.
Once you achieve that, you will no longer fear backlash. This can be liberating.
Know that the outrage, both real and fake, over your dissent from a popular narrative will peak. Nothing lasts forever, particularly in an age where today’s 24-hour news cycle absolutely buries yesterday’s news cycle, and will be replaced by tomorrow’s news cycle. In a week, society forgets most stories. There is simply too much highly volatile content ready and waiting to take its place, pushing your situation down to the bottom of the digital heap.
Ultimately, you will find a new, stronger independent voice that resonates with the stakeholders who stood by you or gave you the benefit of the doubt, and you will find new allies you’ve never anticipated.
There’s an old tip I’ve shared with numerous people I’ve coached before in media training and public speaking sessions, which is that your audience doesn’t want you to fail. Your critics may, but not your audience. Your audience knows that whatever is happening to you could easily happen to them, so they almost inherently empathize with you.
You can use that. Know that your audience, not your critics, see themselves in you. They want you to succeed, even if you don’t hear from them. They know how destructive the cancel culture environment can be. Some, if not most, actually are rooting for you to win. Cancel culture can only destroy you if you let it.
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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.
Also published on Medium.