#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

The Amazon Rainforest Fires of 2019

This summer, the Amazon rainforest began to burn at a rapid rate that hasn’t been seen before in recent years. How could a place described as the lungs of our planet be destroyed in front of our very eyes? Deforestation isn’t a new issue for the Amazon, it can be down to naturally occurring fires but the majority are thought to have been started illegally by ranchers and loggers. Burning down acres of land allows ranchers to create grazing ground for their cattle which in turn destroys the habitat of thousands of species of animals that call the Amazon their home. This threat extends to the Indigenous people who live in and around the rainforest as their protected land is targeted and they are forced to flee.

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There has been a lot of speculation in the media about who exactly is to blame for the increased deforestation rates in the Amazon. Donald Trump is thought to be a key player in the disaster as his trade war with China has left Brazil grappling to support the Chinese agricultural demands. Although, the main problem seems to lie in Brazil’s domestic policies.

It’s hard to discuss the issues surrounding the Amazon rainforest fire without mentioning Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro. Spoiler Alert: He is not one of the good guys. Bolsonaro is the leader of the Social Liberal Party, as its name suggests it was once firmly rooted in left-wing politics. However, in a bizarre turn of events, Bolsonaro has led the party to abandon its liberal policies. Like its leader, the party now advocates for hard-line stances on abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights.

Bolsonaro himself put the blame on local Non-Governmental Organisations. He believes the very people who are there to protect the environment deliberately started the fires as they had been denied funding. Of course, this seems rather unlikely and there is absolutely no evidence to back up his claim.

The Martyr of the Amazon

2004 FILE PHOTO OF U.S. SISTER DOROTHY STANGPictured above is Sister Dorothy Stang. (Photo: Carlos Silva/AVP)

For many people living in Brazil, speaking up about what is happening in the Amazon is a matter of life or death. When I was researching for this blog post, I came across the story of Sister Dorothy Stang. She was an American nun who had been living in Brazil and was known for helping locals who had been displaced by ranchers. She taught sustainable farming methods and was an advocate for the protection of the rainforest. Her work to protect it, and the communities who lived there, angered ranchers. She was placed on a hit list and at the age of 73, on the 12th of February 2005, Dorothy was shot and killed.

Celebrities Speak Out

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At first, there was a distinct lack of media attention across the world as the fires increased. Actress, Zoe Kravitz, shared a popular post (pictured above) that went viral during the crisis. It compares the lack of media coverage to the Notre Dame fire, which in comparison was covered extensively. With the Notre Dame fire, there was a degree of shock value as a historical building was damaged. Perhaps because the destruction of the rainforest is harder to measure, the media tend to focus on stories that more readily capture the public’s attention. 

As the situation worsened, celebrities and public figures began to show their support by sharing posts highlighting the disaster. Many celebrities are beginning to get involved more actively in politics, especially in matters such as climate change. Celebrity support cannot be underestimated as it can act as a spotlight on events, focuses media attention on an issue and creates pressure for politicians to take action.

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What can we do?

In the face of the current political landscape, it can feel pretty helpless watching events unfold halfway across the world.  However, there are small steps we can take that make all the difference in the fight against climate change.

  1. Share it

If you feel passionate about a particular issue sharing it online can keep it in the public sphere. Even talking about it with your family and friends can help keep the conversation alive even when then the news cycle moves on to the next story.

2. Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy

The increased demand for meat and dairy in recent years has caused the clearing of the Amazon to make room for fields to feed live-stock. If we as a society cut back our intake of animal products it would make a huge difference in the battle against climate change.

3. Support politicians that care about the environment

Climate change isn’t just happening around the world; it’s happening at home too. The worst thing we could do is support politicians who don’t even believe it exists.

Sarah Sweeney is a final year student Bsc 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