I served almost my entire journalism career in a time when traditional media was the public’s only means of learning about issues and events. The public’s only means to comment was to write a letter to a newspaper where it would be vetted to avoid defamation and disinformation.
Today, everyone owns a media channel on which they can say anything about anyone, incite an online mob and deliver a swift verdict based on an opinion, without confirmation of facts or context. If the narrative is hitched to a prevailing social or cultural movement, the target is publicly shamed by vigilantes reminiscent of a time when offenders were displayed on pillories in the town square.
Social media has created an era where feelings trump facts – and the loudest voice wins.
Cultural debates and the legal quandary
Cultural debates have fundamentally changed corporate decisions. If companies don’t quickly side with the public on an issue, they risk being “cancelled,” meaning face enough backlash that customers stop doing business with them.
Recently, a Victoria-based Instagram page dedicated to drawing attention to sexualized violence accused several male realtors of “drugging and raping” women. The people claiming abuse told their stories anonymously, while the “aggressors” were named openly.
It took mere minutes for the public to demand that the brokerages that employed these men immediately terminate them. Herein lies the quandary: If the companies hesitated, they risked being cancelled, but terminating without an investigation could invite a wrongful dismissal suit.
While the posts started a community-wide discussion about the important issue of sexualized violence – and it is widely understood that survivors are reluctant to speak publicly due to fear – we have laws that protect individuals from being accused publicly of unfounded crimes and terminated on those grounds.
Former B.C. attorney general and Supreme Court Justice Wally Oppal, now senior counsel at Boughton Law, said: “Cancel culture aside, people have rights, including the right to defend oneself. The idea of employers succumbing to rumours, innuendo and anonymous allegations is contrary to our democratic process of fairness. The worst thing about social media is that it has given life to people making unfounded allegations freely without punishment.”
One of the real estate firms in question hired me to do crisis management. The assignment was difficult for the reasons Oppal mentioned. My journalistic instinct was to give the accused a fair say and ask the Instagram page for evidence. However, as a crisis manager plugged into cultural debates, I knew that asking questions would lead to my client being shamed and cancelled. So, the client did the only thing the public would accept: terminate.
If an employee has gone viral, an employer facing public pressure may have to acknowledge the crisis, distance itself and demonstrate action, but employers should be careful with apologies or commenting about the employee, including naming the person publicly, as that person has a legal right to privacy and dignity.
No way out
People or businesses that are being cancelled often have no way out. Even with a strong legal position, filing an action – or even trying to clarity facts – can invite further public shaming.
A recent high-profile example of “no way out” is the story of fashion influencers Jessica Mulroney and Sasha Exeter. When the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, Exeter shared publicly a small portion of a long text exchange to accuse Mulroney of using “white privilege” to threaten her livelihood. Exeter covered parts of the conversation with a graphic. The public saw a screenshot that essentially boiled down to one frame of a movie. I watched the drama unfold in real time and asked myself: “What was Exeter hiding under the graphic?” However, cancel culture is often devoid of reason and valid questions.
Brands immediately cut ties with Mulroney to protect themselves from cancellation.
Rather than counter the online inferno by releasing the transcript – no doubt a risky play during Black Lives Matter – Mulroney apologized. Several months later, a newspaper published the entire text exchange, providing context that might have influenced the narrative and possibly the outcome. However, it was too late for the target of that episode of cancel culture. As someone recently said, we’ve entered an era in which the public now owns your brand. •
Renu Bakshi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis management and media training.