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July 9, 2021

#CancelCulture: What’s a brand to do?

By Prasanthi Vasanthakumar, Institute of Corporate Directors

With the killing of George Floyd, the high drama of the U.S. election and a raging pandemic that laid bare stark inequities, 2020 was a hotbed for cancel culture. Among its first Canadian casualties was Jessica Mulroney, celebrity stylist, daughter-in-law of a former Canadian prime minister and Megan Markle’s best friend. Following an Instagram feud last summer with social media influencer Sasha Exeter, in which she was accused of showing “textbook white privilege,” Mulroney was effectively cancelled, losing her TV show and other business deals.

Mulroney joins a growing list of brands like Nike, My Pillow and Dick’s Sporting Goods who have had run-ins with cancel culture. Loosely defined as mass online condemnation of an entity’s behaviour, cancel culture is often criticized as modern-day public shaming and the suppression of free speech. However, supporters view it as an important way to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo.

For business leaders, the threat of cancellation is ever present. Cancel culture can hold companies accountable at previously unattainable levels due in part to globalization, the growing economic power of ‘woke’ Gen Z and Millennial consumers, and social media algorithms that amplify outrage. In the ICD’s Spring 2021 Director Lens Survey, 78 per cent of respondents agree that board leaders should discuss and play a role in addressing social issues. What should boards consider as their organizations prepare to enter the fray?

Be authentic

The pressure to say something, anything, can be immense. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 84 per cent Canadians expect CEOs to publicly speak out on societal challenges, such as discrimination and climate change. Before you embrace the latest sentiment that’s in vogue, make sure it jibes with your organization’s values. Having a set of guiding principles, a clear purpose and knowing what you stand for can act as a compass to help you navigate when and how to speak up. As seasoned board director Peter van Oppen says, “You’re better off with authentic adherence to a view that doesn’t placate everyone than you are with a set of values that shifts in the wind.”1 And in some cases, it’s better to say nothing than say something your organization can’t live up to.

Lessons from L'Oréal

L'Oréal learned this the hard way when it posted a message of solidarity with the Black Lives Movement last summer. In yet another Instagram incident, the cosmetics company was quickly called out by Munroe Bergdorf who claimed she was fired by for speaking out against racism and white supremacy in 2017. The model and transgender activist accused L'Oréal of hypocrisy and “gaslighting,” and urged her followers to boycott the brand. In response, L’Oréal’s Brand President apologized in a thoughtful and transparent manner, while inviting Bergdorf to its newly formed UK Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board and committing to donate to causes that matter to the model.

L'Oréal’s close call with cancellation has important lessons for business leaders. First, everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how you respond that matters. Second, what you do matters more than what you say. According to the newly released Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Business and Racial Justice in Canada, 56 per cent of respondents believe companies that issue a statement in support of racial equality need to follow it up with concrete action to avoid being viewed as exploitative or opportunistic. By pairing a sincere apology with specific steps, L’Oréal navigated its mistake skillfully, staying true to its purpose and values and sounding authentic.

It’s complicated

Cancel culture may have peaked in 2020, but it’s still a force to reckon with today. #BlackLivesMatter dominated last year, but this year, #TruthAndReconciliation is gaining traction in Canada. As movements and hashtags change and evolve, it’s important for business leaders to listen and learn before acting. Social media can seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but it also lets you connect with your stakeholders, collect information and identify those magic moments where you can authentically play a role.2

In the end, you will always be better off if you consider your position and practices on challenging social issues before you are confronted with them. This proactivity often comes down to good governance, good management and good communications. And if crisis strikes and you don’t have the answer, it’s okay to take the time to craft a thoughtful response – one that reflects your guiding principles, purpose and strategy.

The reference shelf

Compiled by Heather Wilson, Director, Research Services

1 Corporate Board Member. How to navigate cancel culture threats. (2021)
2 CMOHow brands can respond to cancel culture in 2021 (2021)
CBC. When it comes to boycotting opinions, 'cancel culture' is preventing dialogue from occurring: psychologist (2019)
Employment & Human Rights Law in Canada. Cancel culture at work: terminating employees for inappropriate behaviour (2020)
Fast CompanyAlgorithms are making cancel culture even worse (2020)
Thomson Reuters“Cancel culture” in the workplace: new challenges & risks for compliance, HR & boards (2020)
Nelligan Law. Can I be fired for my opinions: cancel culture and free speech in the workplace (2020)
New York TimesObama on call-out culture: ‘that’s not activism’ (2019)