Public Relations, Startup Opinion

How cancel culture is destroying business

Michel Hogan /

cancel culture

Nike's controversial Fourth of July 'Betsy Ross' sneaker.

A barrage of recent activity stemming from Unilever chief Alan Jope’s article on ‘woke washing’ and an organisation’s responsibility to their purpose might seem like catnip for someone like me. However, it’s the downside of the so-called ‘purpose movement’ I’m more interested in, and the impact it can have on the brand result.

Two recent stories highlight the hair-trigger environment organisations face due to the escalating expectations of how they should do business, regardless of their intention. Setting aside genuine wrongdoing, there is still a barrage of judgement waiting to be unleashed at the smallest provocation. It doesn’t take much for the machine gun of outrage to start turning.

Whatever your beef, rallying the troops has never been easier. Barely a week goes by without an organisation outed for some perceived or real transgression, caught in the crossfire of what they do and how they do it.

In my first example, people working for furniture maker Wayfair walked off the job because the company sold beds to Mexico border detention camp contractors.

In my second example, Nike put itself in the firing line when it yanked the new Fourth of July ‘Betsy Ross’ sneaker from sale after criticism it was potentially offensive for using the revolutionary version of the US flag.

“Rather than including a flag with 50 stars as part of its design, the sneaker’s heel featured the 13-star model, a design associated with the Revolutionary War, the Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross and, for some people, a painful history of oppression and racism,” The New York Times reports.

Beyond beds and sneakers, today, every nook and cranny of an organisation is subject to scrutiny. What used to be relatively simple is now anything but, and organisations are left damned if they do and if they don’t. 

In the Wayfair case, the beds were for kids in detention camps. So was it better for the company to sell them, or for kids to sleep on the ground so the employees could take a stand and then go home to sleep in their beds? 

Mired in their righteousness, I doubt the question was part of the employees thinking. The company ended up making a donation of the profits from the sale to the Red Cross, so take and give, and kids get to sleep on beds.

Over at Nike, I would have expected a smidge more sensitivity to the culture war they stepped into given the slings and arrows they faced by featuring footballer Colin Kaepernick in their anniversary campaign earlier in the year. The furore from the sneakers spanned both sides of politics, with Nike condemned first for the flag idea and then for their actions to remedy using it.

I don’t pretend to have the perfect answer. Experience and observation suggest organisations fair better with a deliberate, careful and vigorous practice of promising where they think through ‘what could possibly go wrong’, not as an ironic aside, but as a genuine question, asked early in any process.

Alternatively, perhaps a new role (or department) of the kind recommended by David Hollander, from New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. Hollander said: “When you get into the game of commodifying social issues in a time of ultra-volatile global political sensitivity, you better create a department in your organisation that does nothing all day and night but monitors and understands that state of play.”

Overall, perhaps we could give organisations a small break. Stop assuming bad intention where none is indicated or proven. And get a grip on the limits of what a business can be expected to navigate before we open fire.

See you in two weeks.

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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