We’re in one of those moments of peaking cultural tension, which means public figures and brands are facing a bombardment of political complaints. Their plight is not a sympathetic one, particularly since celebrities and corporations have spent years unwittingly empowering their detractors. It is, however, an important one. Given an inch, the radical left has taken a mile.
Corporate America has developed a reflex in these situations, ritually genuflecting to leftist critics who organize social media campaigns to demand changes that are often meaningless. It’s not a constructive routine. It typically results in a deferential statement, crafted by communications professionals, accompanied by a pledge to make some change in leadership or operations. The actual impact of those changes is often disproportionate to the intensity of their precipitating demands.
Our cultural ritual of making these demands is driven by social media’s incentives to virtue signal, and an ascendant binary formulation that people are either leftists or bigots. Caving to critics legitimizes that ritual and its underlying ideology. It also feeds the media machine that profits from stories about X Celebrity Facing Backlash For Y. It unfairly ends careers. It undermines the value in learning from mistakes. Given the usefulness of the results, it wastes a lot of time as well.
That isn’t to say all of these criticisms are silly and serve no purpose. Get Jefferson Davis the heck out of our Capitol building. Call out idiot YouTubers who say the n-word or make light of suicide. Let’s absolutely learn from our mistakes.
But do we have to spend days litigating 10-year-old Sarah Silverman bits? Or going through athletes’ Twitter feeds from their teenage years? Do Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks really need to change their names? Does anyone meaningfully benefit from campaigns to cancel idiot reality stars for being idiot reality stars?
Celebrities and corporations should take three steps when their TweetDecks start to explode. First, remember social media critics are not a representative sampling of public opinion, and may not be organizing anything that actually presents a threat to your bottom line.
Second, consider whether you believe their complaints are legitimate. It’s possible they are. But spend time considering whether their demands make a valid point and will make your brand a more moral entity. If they will not, take Step Three: either wait it out, or boldly defend yourself.
That last step is crucial. These storms can be weathered. The news cycle will move on sooner rather than later, and it will take much of the mob with it. Business as usual will almost certainly return.
That’s why issuing a firm and unapologetic self-defense works too. Your critics likely represent a small minority. If you don’t have anything to apologize for, not apologizing should come naturally. You should be explain yourself with a boldness and candor people will appreciate. You will probably sound reasonable. The news cycle will move on.
By refusing to cave in the midst of these swirling PR crises, celebrities and companies can disempower the mobs that will never be satisfied and will return at some point anyway. With enough patience and strength, they can gradually stop this never-ending cycle of mindless posturing that destroys people’s careers and livelihoods and occupies way too much of our time.