Dustin York
Dustin York

Papa John’s, United Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Kanye West, Tiger Woods and now Ellen DeGeneres.

Can you detect a theme? These are all names of brands or celebrities (in some cases both) that have become targets of a phenomenon known as “cancel culture.”

The recent example involving Ellen is a good opportunity for brands to remember that in the age of social media, no one is immune to becoming the target of cancel culture.

Even if you are a brand that prides itself on being culturally sensitive, it only takes one moment for someone from your organization to say something, accidentally or intentionally, that upsets people.

While cancel culture can give consumers more of a voice, it can also get excessively negative and, in some cases, is unjustified.

This is why brands should know in advance the optimal ways to respond should they too become targets of cancel culture.

The first thing to remember if your brand becomes the target of cancel culture is to stay calm— it doesn’t necessarily have to be a PR catastrophe.

So long as whatever your brand has been accused of—be it racial discrimination, sexual harassment or toxic behavior—is something that your organization does not stand for, then it is possible to rebrand yourself, bounce back, and regain the public’s trust.

Brands need to be proactive and play some smart offense instead of just playing defense.

For example, be sure to include morality clauses in your employment contracts and make judicious use of them when necessary. Morality clauses are provisions that allow employers to terminate employment due to unacceptable behavior

Empathy Matters

If your brand finds itself in the hot seat, respond to public outcry with empathy towards the people who are upset.

For legal reasons many brands will often choose to remain silent in the early days of a PR crisis. For better or worse, when PR and legal interests clash the latter tends to get its way

However, an overly long silence may further upset your customers. Regardless, whenever you do choose to respond, don’t try to deny or defend at this point, which will only make things worse. Instead, show empathy towards your upset customers. Affirm their feelings and make it about them, not you.

Next, publicly commit to the cause of investigating the problem. The bigger a brand gets, the harder it is to keep track of every single thing someone says or does. A proper investigation to gather information should therefore be the first priority. Cancel culture can sometimes be vague and all over the place with accusations, so once you have identified what the problem actually is be sure to communicate it.

Back Words With Action

Once the problem and its source(s) have been identified with sufficient investigation, the disciplining or removal of individuals who are guilty of misconduct, along with any leadership who allow or encourage said misconduct, may be necessary. Here it’s helpful to remember that while CEOs of companies are the ones in the limelight, real change often necessitates removing and/or adding people to the company’s senior leadership group. I like to use the analogy of the U.S. president and Congress to illustrate this. The president may be the one who gets most of the attention, but practically speaking it is the members of Congress whose actions most directly affect people’s lives at the everyday level.

Whatever actions you take to fix the problem, remember again to communicate what you are doing with the public so that they know you are backing your words with action.

This is in fact what Papa John’s did after their PR fiasco in 2018 when founder John Schnatter used a racial slur during a conference call. After Schnatter resigned as CEO and chairman of the board, the company brought in new leadership such as former Arby’s president Rob Lynch, NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, and Jeff Smith. Under their leadership, the company has been able to bounce back from their crisis.

The Papa John’s case also illustrates the use of empathy in a PR recovery campaign. In this case the compay did more than convey empathy towards their customers, though they did that too.

After responding to the initial outrage with empathy, conducting an internal investigation, and then making leadership changes, they then went on to elicit empathy from their customers.

Through their “Voices” campaign, Papa John's wanted to show how the company’s leadership woes had little to do with the owners of local stores who were just regular people living and working in the same communities as their customers.

When it comes to cancel culture, even if you apply all of these principles, you won’t be able to satisfy everyone.

Even as Papa John’s did all the right things, from a PR perspective, to address their problems there were still those who remained angry or upset.

This is just the way it is with the Internet, and brands need to accept that there will always be those who respond negatively no matter what you do. But by tapping into the power of empathy, backing up words with actions, and being honest and communicative, brands can bounce back after being targeted by cancel culture and, in the process, even become better versions of themselves.


Dr. Dustin York is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University