You said or did something stupid.
And now you’re being called out on social media by the digital mob. Reporters, your employees and customers are watching from the sidelines.
What you do next will seal your fate. Do it wrong and you’ll get yourself cancelled. You may very well lose your job, your business and your reputation.
Now is not the time to throw yourself a pity party, run and hide or hope the mob gets bored and moves on to its next target.
“The online shunning is not random nor is it unfair,” says Molly McPherson, author of Indestructible and an expert in public relations and crisis response in the digital age.
“The people who are targeted for cancellation or the brands that find themselves in the public’s crosshairs are in that position for a reason.
“The outrage is typically not from the questionable act that took the notice of the public, but from an inadequate response to the questionable act. The blowback is caused by a collective repudiation of the response itself or the hubris behind it.”
Brace yourself for extinction-level blowback if you’re defiant, snarky, tone deaf or slow off the mark.
McPherson has a far better three-step response that can save your reputation.
Own it. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for what you’ve said or done. Be sincere, humble and show genuine remorse. “An apology is critical to rebuilding a reputation and shows respect to people impacted or victimized by an incident. Accepting responsibility may seem risky, but it’s far riskier from a reputational point of view to try and avoid it.”
Clarify it. Give background that puts what you said or did in context. Explain, but don’t try to excuse, yourself. Use your weekend words when explaining yourself. “Speak to your stakeholders in a language they understand. Speak clearly and as jargon-free as possible.”
Promise it. Put yourself on the path to redemption. Announce your plans, priorities and the changes to come. Take real steps to make amends. “It goes without saying that this is not the time for token efforts – you’ll need to show how serious you are about mending the situation if you expect your reputation to emerge intact without being cancelled.”
And if you do these three steps, you have a shot at winning it and not getting yourself cancelled.
McPherson sees the same mistake being repeated by leaders facing a digital revolt. “The most dangerous thing a leader can do the moment they hear of pushback from the public is dismissal. They dismiss the complaint. They dismiss the complainer. They dismiss the power of social media. I have never, ever worked on or have been aware of a situation in which such dismissal hasn’t hurt a business in the short or long term.”
So why are leaders so quick to dismiss and make things worse for themselves? The number one reason is fear, says McPherson. “Fear of consumers rising up against their leadership. Fear of social media. Fear of information taken out of context.”
There are also leaders who still believe everything is private unless and until they chose to release it. The game has changed, says McPherson. Not only do we want information, we expect it on demand. “Being told ‘no’ is an invitation to ask again and to ask even harder because the reluctance to share arouses suspicion.”
In a world where everything you say and do can and likely will be used against you on social media, McPherson says leaders now more than ever need to practice honesty, humility, genuineness, transparency, responsiveness, relevance and accountability “Leading with these core values will help you navigate the environment and digital landscape in ways that older, outdated paradigms will not.”
So if you find yourself being called out online, silence, denial, defiance and non-apologies are not winning strategies. McPherson will show you a far better way to avoid getting cancelled and come out of a crisis with your reputation intact.
This review ran in the July 17th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.