Head to Head: Do brands deserve a second chance after being ‘cancelled’?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues and talking points. This week, N2N Communications' Katarina Farrell and Sefiani's Nicole Schulz go head to head on reputation rehabilitation.

“Cancel culture”. It was the Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019, defined as “the attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure”.

When a brand is cancelled, there can be a crippling boycott of its products and services. And as consumer voices grow louder through social media and their expectations are pushed higher, brands are being forced to reflect upon their approaches to diversity, ethical principals and social purpose.

But when a brand is ‘cancelled’, should it be given a second chance?

N2N Communications’ Katarina Farrell argues that brands do not deserve a second chance, but notes that the world of redemption is not always fair.

Nicole Schulz, group practice lead at Sefiani Communications Group, says that cancel culture should be a catalyst for positive change.

Do brands deserve a second chance after being ‘cancelled’?

Katarina Farrell, general manager of N2N Communications, argues ‘No’:

Cancel culture is the practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. This is often in the form of a boycott and a campaign through social media to ‘shame’ the person or brand to respond, do better, and be better.

Do brands deserves a second chance after being ‘cancelled’? It all comes down to the word deserve. To deserve something you have to be worthy, you have to be able to claim something through actions or qualities.

So with this in mind, do brands that have done or said something objectionable or offensive deserve a second chance? No, of course not. They’re not worthy (to paraphrase Wayne and Garth).

‘With power comes great responsibility’ (Voltaire) – and brands that misuse this power and don’t deliver on what has been promised to employees, shareholders, stakeholders and the community don’t deserve a second chance.

Unfortunately, it’s not black and white, and we see big brands continuing to thrive regardless of whether they deserve to. DuPont is still one of the world’s largest chemical companies after knowingly poisoning people; the Catholic Church continues to protect those in its ranks from child-sex abuse allegations; and Shell continues to deliver good earnings after the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill. All these organisations failed, in varying ways, to live up to the expectations of their shareholders, employees, customers, stakeholders and communities. But all continue to operate, and in some cases, thrive.

A brand doesn’t deserve, but must earn a second chance.

L’Oréal Paris recently learnt a hard lesson after being called out by transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for being hypocritical in its support for the BLM movement.

Munroe Bergdorf, the first transgender model to be hired by the beauty brand, was fired in 2017 for denouncing racism and white supremacy in a Facebook post. At the time, L’Oréal said Bergdorf’s comments were not in keeping with the brand’s vision for diversity and inclusion and she was fired as a result.


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I wanted to give @lorealparis 48 hours before writing this to see if a public apology was possible. But their choice to ignore me and not acknowledge the emotional, mental and professional harm that they caused me since sacking me in 2017, after speaking out about white supremacy and racism, speaks volumes. So does their choice to not engage with the thousands of black community members and allies who have left comments of concern on their last two posts, in response to their claim to support the black community, despite an evident history of being unwilling to talk about the issues that black people face globally because of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is a movement for the people, by the people. It is not here to be co-opted for capital gain by companies who have no intention of actually having difficult conversations regarding white supremacy, police brutality, colonialism and systemic racism. It cannot be reduced to a series of corporate trends by brands like L’Oréal who have no intention of actually doing the work to better themselves or taking ownership of their past mistakes or conscious acts of racial bias. I would not have been sacked if I had said what I said and was a cisgender, straight, white woman. It just wouldn’t have happened. If you want to stand with black lives matter then get your own house in order first. This could have been a moment of redemption for L’Oréal, a chance for them to make amends and lead by example. We all get things wrong, we all make mistakes, but it’s where you go from there that is a signifier of who you are. L’Oréal claiming to stand with the black community, yet also refusing to engage with the community on this issue, or apologise for the harm they caused to a black female queer transgender employee, shows us who they are – just another big brand who seeks to capitalise from a marginalised movement, by widening their audience and attempting to improve their public image. Brands need to be aware of their own track record. It’s unacceptable to claim to stand with us, if the receipts show a history of silencing black voices. Speaking out can’t only be “worth it” when you’re white. Black voices matter.

A post shared by MUNROE (she/they) (@munroebergdorf) on

Fast forward three years and to L’Oréal’s credit, they have demonstrated growth and taken the opportunity to right a wrong. Brand president Delphine Viguier responded openly, connected with and apologised to Munroe, and has outlined action to further inclusivity and diversity in the organisation and its communities in the context of BLM.

As communications professionals who are in the trade of both building and protecting reputation, it’s our job to give brave counsel to the brands we work for, ensure all reputational risks have been considered and prepared for. But communications alone cannot protect a brand from cancel culture. As advisers we can influence the response to issues but comms must be accompanied by demonstrated growth, authentic action and genuine change.

Nicole Schulz, group practice lead Sefiani Communications Group, argues ‘Yes’:

The power of social media in escalating a war against a brand has become a serious concern for business leaders and marketers facing an attack on their brand’s reputation. Do these brands deserve a second chance? Yes, I believe they do if their response is authentic and action-oriented.

Whilst cancel culture has predominantly been a vehicle for public shaming and punishment, I would argue that it can, and should, be used as a catalyst for positive change. Simply cancelling a brand is a missed opportunity for that brand to listen, learn and take meaningful action. Enabling a brand to make public amends and implement positive change, sets an example of the high standard to which socially-conscious consumers can now hold brands.

It is a brand’s response to being cancelled, that we should apply our harshest judgement. Recently, we’ve seen companies make bold moves to ensure they are in step with societal expectations and their own brand values: Nestlé announced it will change the name of its Red Skins and Chicos lollies and IBM was the first to declare it will move away from the facial recognition business.

Brands may find themselves subject to cancel culture when they align with a social purpose superficially. During the Black Lives Matter protests, many brands that supposedly supported the cause were called out for their lack of employee diversity. This sparked the #pulluporshutup challenge, demanding brands that had supported BLM to disclose publicly the number of Black people they employ. The challenge asked not for brand cancellation, but for transparency and actionable solutions.

“Woke-washing” as coined by Unilever chief executive Alan Jope – where brands are cashing in on culture wars – can be even more damaging to a brand’s reputation than not saying anything at all.

It is critical for brands to be authentic. To be clear on what they stand for and what they stand against. To understand what matters to their customer and ensure those values are represented in their brand actions. And if caught in the fire, be worthy of a second chance – look inwards, be accountable and make a change for the better.

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you are a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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