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Almost every week in 2020, a brand has been proclaimed “cancelled” by the internet. In a world where outrage travels fast on Twitter, the sharp edge of activism is no longer reserved for just oil brands or big tobacco. So what’s now expected of advertisers that find themselves in the midst of a crisis?

What do Jo Malone, Soul Cycle, L’Oreal, HSBC and Oatly have in common? In the the past year alone, all these brands have found their named attached to the #cancelled hashtag on Twitter.

Jo Malone was the most recent. This week it faced accusations of racism and lost its first male ambassador, John Boyega, after cutting him out of the Chinese version of an ad he conceived and removing all Black cast members from the reshoot.

For US fitness brands Soul Cycle and Equinox, the issue was party politics – with model Chrissy Teigen urging her fans to cancel their memberships after learning that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a Donald Trump fundraiser.

L’Oréal Paris faced a backlash in June when transgender activist and model Munroe Bergdorf, who was dropped by the brand due to her political activism, called out the brand for a “hypocritical” statement on Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

HSBC has been the target of the 'Brandalism' group over its fossil fuel ties. And last week Swedish milk alternative darling Oatly was called out over its ties with controversial private equity firm Blackstone following a sour Twitter thread.

Some of these lapses in judgement require a fundamental change in corporate culture from the roots up (which we could dedicate another article to entirely). But what brands do in the hours, days and weeks after a crisis are still critical to their survival. How, then, should modern advertisers deal with cancel culture in a world where it’s no longer reserved for the likes of oil companies, tech giants and big tobacco?

The core principles of crisis comms

For Andy Barr, owner of PR business 10 Yetis which works with clients including Superdry, there is no doubt that the fast-paced nature of “brand activism” has changed the way advertisers and their press offices approach crisis comms.

“The core principles for managing this remain the same though,” he says. “At a very basic level these are: apologise where you can, try to get ahead of the story by acting quickly and then learn from your mistakes once the crisis is over.

“Similar to a traditional media approach, this will never be enough to stop people cancelling their service or not using a company's products, but it will show to those looking in from the outside the dramatic action being taken by a brand to learn and improve.”

In L’Oréal’s case, the brand took this one step further by apologising to Bergdorf directly (a move that was only revealed when the model announced on Instagram the business had reached out to have an “open and constructive conversation”).

The brand’s new president Delphine Viguier-Hovasse, who joined after Bergdorf was fired, also asked the model to be L’Oréal Paris’ diversity consultant. In addition, it donated $28,000 each to Mermaids, a UK-based charity supporting transgender youth, and UK Black Pride, an LGBTQ organisation supporting people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent.

As for Jo Malone, Boyega said "no apology would ever be enough" to make him reconsider the brand deal. 

Oatly, meanwhile, took a different approach to its most recent crisis, publicly defending its decision to receive a £200m investment from Blackstone, which has been linked to Amazon rainforest deforestation.

“We thought that if we could convince [Blackstone] that it’s as profitable (and in the long-term even more profitable) to invest in a sustainability company like Oatly, then all the other private equity firms of the world would look, listen and start to steer their collective worth of 4 trillion US dollars into green investments,” said Oatly in a statement.

Chris Norman, chief executive and founder of purpose-led branding shop Good Agency, cites Oatly’s selection of Blackstone in the first instance as a classic example of brand values failing to align with behaviour – and the subsequent statement didn’t do the brand any favours.

“Oatly could have so easily avoided the issue if it had included criteria in the funding process which ensured that the partners and investors it worked with shared its values,” he explains. “This was clearly not the case with Toni Peterssen, Oatly’s chief exec, being very clear afterwards that Blackstone was chosen to lead the funding round ‘because of its tremendous resources and unique reach’.” Not one mention of its values, which is what Oatly has built its brand on.”

Cancel culture, it’s not cut and dry

Jane Austin, owner and chief exec of PR consultancy Persuasion, believes responding to cancel culture just isn’t as clear cut as crisis management.

She’s on the fence about whether Twitter boycotts count as activism, but says brands would be foolish to dismiss a surge of disapproval on social media.

“The biggest issue for me in crisis situations has been when clients won’t acknowledge that they have made a colossal error," she reveals. "They want me to find a way to calm down the comments on Twitter, as opposed to taking responsibility. I had a client, a few years ago, whose company was accused of misogyny. When I came back to him with ideas on how to respond, he raised his voice to me.”

Her advice to any brand in crisis mode is that they need to take responsibility and respond quickly.

“Coming up with a bogus platitude such as ‘that Republican investor is rarely involved in the day-today business’ is just insulting to those you buy into your brand. Apologise, be specific in where you went wrong and don’t offer a blanket apology.”

She adds: “Your critics are angry, not stupid. They’re also bored as they haven’t been out much, so Twitter has gained stature as a vital communication tool.”

If businesses can learn from anyone, she says, it’s Stormzy, who in 2018 apologised and promised to educate himself after Pink News uncovered a series of historic homophobic tweets.

“It’s one of the only cases I can think of where a celebrity on the brink of being cancelled stopped it with an apology and active learning,” Austin adds.

Where Austin advises that “overcommunication” is key, Barr says that brands also need to make key considerations about the makeup of their comms department in the current landscape.

“The reality on the day to day, boots on the ground front is that social media experts, both in terms of content, strategy and actual algorithm manipulation, now sit alongside the PR positioning experts when it comes to managing a social media based issue,” he says.

“Cancel culture and brand activism is only going to grow bigger and this brings about a whole new opportunity for traditional crisis communications agencies as they move their tactics to online reputation management and cleaning up the likes of the Google SERPS and social media channels after a brand ‘accident’.”