Practicing Public Relations in the Age of Cancel Culture

The concept of “cancel culture” has travelled through the mouths of politicians, tech CEOs, social media creators, and other sorts of influencers. The first time I heard of someone condemning this idea of online shaming was from President Obama while speaking at a summit for his foundation. The former president pushed back against these ideas of “judgmentalism” and “purity” found within younger generations prompting “cancelations.”

Over the past few years, mobs have found it increasingly necessary to use social media with the intention of holding people in power accountable. It seems to me this is the internet’s version of the citizen’s arrest, only in front of millions and millions of people. Working in parallel with the “Me Too Movement” against sexual misconduct, cancel culture looked to eliminate offensive language or actions — which is a tall order. Now, with issues such as police brutality, racial inequality, and COVID-19 presented within a hyper-polarized culture, tact and overall discretion are imperative for people in the spotlight, or rather, those trying to avoid it.

As professionals in crisis-management, reputation maintenance, and mortification prevention, PR practitioners are in the trenches of this cancel culture reckoning. This societal development has created newfound challenges within the realm of public relations. The way figures with immense influence are scrutinized adds pressure to their advisers on publicity as misfortune proves that one mistake could cost millions. The role of PR practitioners, especially those dealing with public figures, must always keep up with cultural expectations. 

Tech leaders have been on record answering questions on whether this culture centered around internet interactions is worth the harm. PR professionals must wonder if they are enabling and enticing the cancel “trolls” by releasing long winded apologies and tiptoeing around every issue. While staying conscious of the client’s bottom line, I wonder if there is not a countermovement brewing within the public relations world as professional communicators feel as though the world is overreacting. Although, in the past, celebrities have not had the luxury of rebelling against cancel culture, maybe those trained in crisis-management should guide the charge.


Olivia Matherne is a current junior at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. She is studying journalism and mass communication with a concentration in PR and political science with a focus on American politics.

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