#CancelCulture: Should brands be able to bounce back from a PR scandal?

Cancel culture is a term that was virtually unheard of just years ago but now is a prominent feature of the digital age. So what exactly is cancel culture? It can be described as an environment that facilitates a form of public shaming, usually occurring on the Internet, where a person or an organisation is denounced for perceived misconduct. Every week, seemingly a new person or organisation is ‘cancelled’, from celebrities whose transgressions have come to light (think Kevin Spacey) to brands who have alienated or offended their customers (remember that controversial Pepsi ad?).

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The rise of social media has changed how brands interact with their publics forever, consumers can now share their positive and negative experiences in real-time at the click of a button. It is now common practice for companies to engage with influencer marketing in order to build up an increased presence online or to increase sales. Conversely, it can be difficult territory to navigate as a negative review or comment from one of these influencers can cause shockwaves for a brand. The crisis communications and reputation management aspects of public relations are therefore of increasing importance and brands need to have a firm strategy in place to rebuild trust with their customers. When a crisis hits and a brand is unwilling to acknowledge or apologise for their fault, it raises the question if brands can or should be able to resurge after a PR disaster.

When influencer marketing goes wrong: DOTE and their representation crisis

One brand that tried to utilise the power of influencer marketing had a huge PR scandal during the Summer. DOTE is a shopping app that primarily focuses on the Generation Z audience. To target this section of the demographic, DOTE created a community of influencers from Youtube and Instagram that were referred to as ‘dote girls’. These dote girls were sent on sponsored brand trips to promote their clothing and the lifestyle that DOTE was trying to sell. Two of these trips, one to Fiji and the other to Coachella, had huge fall-out and resulted in a PR disaster. It emerged that during these trips that the influencers of colour were treated differently from the other dote girls. Specifically, on the Coachella trip, DOTE segregated the group and placed the white Youtubers in the more luxurious section of the house whereas the people of colour had to sleep on couches at the opposite end of the accommodation. They were also not photographed as much as the other girls and didn’t feature as heavily on DOTE’s social media pages.

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What ensued from this was dozens of videos where the girls outlined their negative experience which resulted in thousands upon thousands of comments condemning the brand for their possible racism. How did DOTE rectify the situation and try to rebuild their credibility as a brand? They began to delete photographs on their social media that featured predominately white people and began to feature more people of colour in their posts with the statement ‘this is what dote looks like.’ Many people picked up on this and it further alienated their audiences with YouTubers like Tiffany Ferg commenting on how fabricated the brand now appeared. DOTE  released a statement apologising for their mistake and continue to be more representative of all girls, however, they have lost invaluable partnerships and will be hard-pressed to find an influencer who would now promote them on their channel. Could DOTE as a brand have done anything differently?

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Steps to take in a social media crisis

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Social media is now arguably the most important factor in crisis communications. In this smart-phone era, it is highly likely that a PR disaster will appear as a result of a blunder on social media or at the very least will be discussed in-depth online.  As the above infographic outlines, it is vital for brands to continually monitor the tone of discussion online. Only in this way can they be prepared when a social media storm hits. It is also important for companies not to be overly defensive and instead take criticism on board so that consumers can genuinely feel that their feedback may be able to make a difference.

As the DOTE scandal illustrates, one badly handled PR crisis can tarnish a brand’s reputation exponentially. What once was a thriving social-media focused company with a plethora of followers has greatly plummeted, this may be as a result of ignoring comments focusing on their representation issues in the past.  However, DOTE’s efforts to improve their representation along with their apology, although appearing fake right now,  may genuinely produce positive results as they move forward from this crisis.

Sarah Sweeney is a final year student BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-sweeney-ab6635143/  and Instagram @sarahsween3y