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Here's the No. 1 Thing Brands Can Do to Avoid Public Outrage and Cancel Culture

If you have no place to authentically enter the conversation or connect with that cultural moment, don't do it. Sitting on the sidelines for that moment could be the best decision you could make in the new year.

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I once had a former manager who wanted us to post, share and comment on any and every cultural moment. He would be outraged when we missed something. He would fill our inboxes and text us screenshots of what other brands and companies had done.

SEAN GLADWELL | Getty Images

“Are we going to wish people a Happy Ramadan? It’s a big miss if we don’t.”

“It’s the Super Bowl. There’s nothing more American than football. What’s our plan?”

“It’s Cinco De Mayo. What should we say?”

How about we say nothing? Let’s just say nothing at all. Please.

In our always-on “attention economy,” we are drowning in a wealth of information, which continues to demand more and more of our attention. Since the start of the pandemic, our collective digital attention has only grown: 50 percent of consumers have been online more. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, we scroll endlessly on social media, glued to our phones.  

And with the democratization of content creation, anyone can create that next video, that next post, that next tweet, that can go viral. So it’s no surprise that brands are under intense pressure — to be clever, to be on point, to be breakthrough, to stay relevant and to build lasting connections with us.

McDonald’s separating its golden arches to promote social distancing. One United Bank sharing a new debit card design featuring Harriet Tubman making the Wakanda forever sign. The Gap creating a half blue and half red hoodie to create unity post-2020 presidential election. Brand after brand trying to connect with us in “these moments that matter.”

And most recently, Tropicana urging stressed-out parents to stash orange juice and champagne in hidden mini fridges to deal with parenting in a pandemic. The backlash was swift, with consumers outraged that the brand would glorify alcohol usage as a coping mechanism, normalizing alcohol abuse by parents.

"We want to apologize to anyone who is disappointed in or offended by our recent campaign," Tropicana wrote. "The intent behind it was in no way meant to imply that alcohol is the answer or make light of the struggles of addiction."

Tropicana’s mimosa campaign might have been one of the last mishaps we witnessed in 2020. It also serves as a reminder of the pressure brands will continue to be under to get it right in the new year. With so many of us glued to our phones and at home in this pandemic, we are tired and frustrated, and tensions are running high. We might be less likely to be as forgiving when brands make mistakes, ready to unleash our feelings on Twitter.

Related: What to Do When You Wake Up to a PR Crisis

So what’s the No. 1 thing brands can do to avoid public outrage and cancel culture? If you have no place to authentically enter the conversation or connect with that cultural moment, don’t do it. Sit in your FOMO. Do nothing. Sitting on the sidelines for that moment could be the best decision you make in the new year.

As we enter 2021, here are three questions we as leaders should be asking ourselves when it comes to our brands and moments that matter:

1. Why are you applying pressure?

To be in relentless pursuit of great content is one thing. To decide you need to suddenly create a social post on the afternoon of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is an entirely different thing. When there's no thought or preparation, mistakes are made and brands start to wade into the pool of "cancel culture."

As someone who was once a junior marketer, I have felt this intense pressure from senior leaders. Leaders who don’t want to spend the time being proactive and are constantly reacting to what they see on their social feeds. This can serve as a source of inspiration, or it can send us into a death spiral, where we are constantly chasing what others are doing and being copycats. Sometimes we end up duplicating content and ideas from competitors that aren’t actually very good.

We must collaborate with our teams, agencies and thought partners to map out the cultural moments in 2021 that matter. To be proactive instead of reactive. To think about continued conversations in this pandemic and what role our brands could play. To be clear on what our brand stands for and when and why we should enter these conversations.  

2. What does your brand stand for?

Amidst a pandemic, an economic crisis and mass demonstrations over systemic racism, consumers are in search of brands that will act and advocate for change. According to the 2020 Edelman Brand Trust Survey, 80 percent of consumers want brands to “solve society’s problems.” It’s no longer enough to show your support in social channels with a short, sentimental statement.

This is beyond a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag — especially if you don’t have any Black talent featured in your brand’s Instagram feed. This is beyond a social post on the importance of Women’s History Month — especially if you have no women in your senior leadership positions. This is beyond encouraging people to buy a red and blue hoodie for unity post-presidential election — especially if you have had nothing to say about the social, economic and political issues facing our country.

What does your brand actually stand for? How many of us can easily answer this question? You need to know what your values and beliefs are. You need to have well-defined guardrails of what you will stand for and what you will stand up for in those moments that matter.

Related: 3 Ways to Succeed in Marketing in the Modern Era

3. Why should you participate in this moment?

In the case of Tropicana, it was likely too tempting not to wade into the conversation about how stressful parenting is in this pandemic. A better approach: showing parents enjoying mimosas after the kids are finally in bed after another long pandemic day of remote working and virtual school.

Why should you participate in this moment? If you have prepared for cultural moments you want to join, and you know what your brand stands for, you can definitively answer this question. Brands that can seize the moment to create relevant and authentic content are ones that have done the hard work.

It’s tough not to live in fear of public outrage and cancel culture. We all make mistakes. Bur when we are intentional, thoughtful and prepared, we will make less mistakes along the way.

Some might argue silence and sitting out is not an option. I would argue that you must be thoughtful about why, when and how you show up. If you don’t know the best way to do this, sit this round out and wait for the moment where your brand can have a meaningful impact.

Related: Is It Time to Hibernate or Accelerate Your PR Efforts?