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What happens if your CEO gets cancelled?

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

This article was first published in Influence magazine.

“Cancel club is a fascinating thing and I have learned a whole lot. Only a few understand it and it’s impossible to know till you’re in it. And it’s hard to talk about it in that sense because obviously you sound whiney when you’ve clearly done something wrong."

While many may dismiss Chrissy Teigen’s wallowing – having been publicly cancelled due to her trolling tweets – the number of public figures who have fallen foul of cancel culture is mounting. The Urban Dictionary definition of cancel culture is ‘To dismiss something/ somebody. To reject an individual or an idea’ - Tim Toulmin, managing director, at Alder Media, goes further, describing “allegations regarding someone’s conduct being called out – typically on social media – that falls short of criminal behaviour”.

Some have suggested that the increase in public ‘cancellations’ is a reaction against celebrity culture, particularly during the pandemic, during which many celebs – assuming we were ‘all in this together’ – found themselves ridiculed by us ‘normal people’, less able to self-isolate in our private yachts.

Movements such as #MeToo, #BLM and #HeforShe have resulted in numerous public figures being called out for their views and actions, and this has given voice to people who have previously kept quiet about the countless acts of misogyny, racism and violence they have been subjected to. The opportunity to call out figures who were previously protected and defended by the institutions within our society, was too great for many to resist. The chance for validation and – finally – justice was sweet and you could argue it was social media that enabled this. But what happens when those accusations are #fakenews? How do you defend yourself in the court of public opinion when the tidal wave is against you? Tim Toulmin, who was also, previously director of the Press Complaints Commission and has been involved in some of the highest-profile media stories in the last decade, shared his concerns with me about the fairness of cancel culture: “As a society, we haven’t worked out what to do after someone has been ‘cancelled’. Whether the accusations are true or not, at least if you go to prison for doing something illegal you have access to rights of privacy and rehabilitation. Once someone has accused you of something on social media, your reputation can be destroyed in hours…where is the opportunity for redemption then?”

The 2021 Edelman Brand Equity report identified an increase in consumers believing that they have the power to force brands to change, with 78% wanting to exert that power on brands to make society better. Reasonably, it is the CEO who is under most scrutiny when it comes to reflecting a company’s values, but is the general public always the best judge of what ‘better’ is?

CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman was one of many CEOs in the United States whose comments resulted in them being forced to resign in 2020. In Glassman’s case, he ‘retired’ after a significant backlash from the public and corporate partners following comments he made about George Floyd’s death, including a statement that he was not mourning. Also in 2020, Boeing’s chief communications officer, Niel Golightly, lost his job because of an article he wrote in 1987, opposing women being allowed to serve as fighter pilots. Golightly apologised for the article, writing: “My article was a 29-year-old Cold War navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time. The dialogue that followed its publication 33 years ago quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.” That was not enough to save his job. While both examples involve the public expression of what are currently considered offensive views, given that Golightly’s mistake was made a long time ago and has been regretted ever since, is it really fair that both men should pay the same price? An important consequence of cancel culture should surely be organisations examining the level of risk they are comfortable with being exposed to, as a result of their Executives’ current – or past – actions.

So, what do you do if you or your CEO is accused of something on social media? How do you limit the damage to your organisation’s reputation? Here are Tim Toumin’s top tips:

1. You need to say something well and say it once. Whether it’s an apology or you’re refuting the accusations, this one message is the one you want quoted, don’t continue to comment or it will confuse the message.

2. What you say to the public is one thing; more importantly you need to focus on other stakeholders. Meet with employees, board members, key customers. They will want to hear from you first. Make sure they feel trusted and use them to advocate for you.

Having read up on fellow-communicator Golightly’s experience; I’ll add a third to this list myself:

3. Humility. Whether what is said of you is true or not, fair or not, know that you are part of a time in history where wrongs are finally being righted, inequalities called out, frustrations being heard. Golightly took a forced sabbatical and was privileged enough to use the time reading, spending time with family and friends and coming to terms with what had happened to him. His Medium article is worth a read. Cancel culture can be truly destructive and entirely unfair, but if you have the money and resources to give yourself time to reach acceptance (and let’s face it, most CEOs definitely have access to this privilege), use it and learn from it. You’ll be far more useful and interesting a candidate as a result.

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