Surviving Cancel Culture with Wesley Donehue

September 9, 2022

Surviving Cancel Culture with Wesley Donehue

September 9, 2022

About This Episode

We all know what cancel culture is. Some of us have been subject to it. Some of us have even participated in it. But we can all agree that it is messed up. The thing about cancel culture is that it is not just about wanting to silence you; people want to destroy you.

“They want to make sure you get fired from your job, or your business runs out of business,” Wesley says. “They want to permanently damage your reputation so that when you apply for another job, they Google your name and see how much of a ‘horrible person’ you are.”

Anyone can be a victim of cancel culture (not just politicians and celebrities), even businesses and individuals.

That is what I talked about with Wesley Donehue, a consultant and digital marketer specializing in putting out fires for brands, politicians, and individuals who are getting “canceled.” His team helped a lot of companies like SeaWorld rebuild their brand reputation after being under fire (pun intended) from keyboard warriors when a crisis arrived.

“We live in a kind of world right now where 'innocent until proven guilty' no longer exists on the Internet,” Wesley says. You are guilty until proven innocent—anyone can say anything about you at any time, and that unchecked fact becomes the truth, regardless of whether it is true. You are “racist,” you are "sexist," and that becomes who you are because that’s what a lot of people have agreed to brand you with.

That is why he wrote his book Under Fire: 13 Rules for Surviving Cancel Culture (and Other Crises), to help corporations (and individuals!) have an outline of what to do or what not to do when people are “canceling” you.

How do we survive cancel culture?

Entrepreneurs and politicians can learn a lot from Nick Fury.

Before the world needed the Avengers, Nick Fury put together the team because he foresaw what was going to happen. He didn’t wait for the disaster to happen before he scrambled to recruit the Avengers.

Be like Nick Fury. Assemble your team of “firefighters” to put out the fire before it happens. Don’t wait to be in deep crap before scrambling to find someone to fix things for you.

Unfortunately, in Wesley’s experience, most entrepreneurs wait for the crisis to happen before finding a team that could help them.

“Things can go viral online in 20 minutes. It might take you days to find a team that can put out the fire for you,” Wesley shares.

Entrepreneurs could benefit from a team with someone handling legal matters (i.e. an attorney) that can help make sure you are not in any legal trouble, whether criminal or civil. A crisis expert to handle crisis management and a communications person to handle press releases, public statements, and other crisis communications. A finance person for any budgetary issues you may be facing, and for big corporations, someone in-charge of handling polls and who can look at those numbers.

“You really need that team [in place, prior to a crisis]—it’s like car insurance. You need to have car insurance before you get into a wreck,” Wesley says.

The first lesson people should know about crisis management: you don’t need to handle it yourself. In fact, a lot of times, you shouldn’t handle it yourself. If you are too close to the issue, it is hard to see the whole forest through the trees—sometimes emotions get in the way. Your team helps you handle it objectively and strategically.

When Wesley and his team come in to help a brand or individual under fire online, they try to know what the specifics are. What are people talking about online? What is the general sentiment? What IS the TRUTH?

Next is, "Are you in any legal trouble?" Because sometimes court cases are filed that they aren’t aware of yet.

Once they know those things, it is time to figure out whether you should issue a public statement or not. Like in any emergency, “you need to stop the bleeding first,” Wesley tells me. And that means shaping an immediate response to criticism. Do you apologize or not apologize? What public statement should be released? Is it actually better to let the issue die by going dark and not responding at all?

When the immediate things have been settled, or the fire has been mostly put out or managed, then they can focus on brand recuperation. How do I fix public sentiment?

Some entrepreneurs think that marketing is all about how you get your products or services to sell. That’s why most of the time, they rely on marketing experts with no political experience. However, in these cases where crises arise, you need an arm in your marketing department who knows how to deal with the political implications of an issue—and that is a whole different set of expertise.

“The tickets won’t sell unless you fix the brand reputation problem,” Wesley shares, as they experienced when handling SeaWorld’s fiasco.

Brand recuperation? How do we rebuild a reputation?

When it comes to the recuperation part, it has to be authentic to the person/organization, their brand, and the situation.

Joe Rogan, apologizing for the old videos of him dropping the N-word, is authentic to who he is and his brand. People were telling him not to apologize, because it was something he did years ago, and he had changed now. But it would be inauthentic for him, who is big on empathy, transparency, and understanding people, not to apologize, even if it was indeed a past mistake.

But if Donald Trump apologizes, people will find it inauthentic because we all know “Donald Trump doesn’t apologize because he doesn’t think he’s wrong,” Wesley says.

Sometimes, brand recuperation is also dictated by the situation.

When Wesley experienced his own cancel culture moment, as a political “hot-head” or a “political knife-fighter,” he figured that his best course of action was to step back and let the issue die down.

He went dark for three months, and when he returned, he started to rebrand himself, from someone who gets into Twitter fights, to a person who is older and wiser now, and started posting more thoughtful content.

But for SeaWorld, that wasn’t the case. Stepping away from the issue and hoping it would die down would do more damage than good. Instead, what Wesley and his team saw was that people didn’t know the truth about SeaWorld: how they were the biggest rescue and rehabilitation center for marine wildlife in the nation and that they weren’t torturing the animals in SeaWorld by holding them in captivity. They were saving them, because most of these animals won’t survive being returned to the wild (yet, or ever). So, showing the truth behind the scenes of SeaWorld was the best course of action.

There are many different ways to recover from a crisis, but it has to be authentic to the person/organization, their brand, and the situation.

How to deal with “trolls” 

Some solopreneurs, small business owners, and entrepreneurs are hesitant to go on social media, in fear of cancel culture and “trolls.”

“Sometimes, some people are gonna screw with you just to screw with you,” Wesley shares. It is unavoidable on the internet. Keyboard courage allows a lot of people to say mean and sometimes untrue things about anyone online.

Wesley’s advice is to have the mental fortitude to ignore trolls. According to him, 98% of the time, the best way to deal with those kinds of people online is to ignore them. It is only when legitimate negative comments are being shared by a lot of people about you (i.e. a restaurant getting reviews that they have roaches) that needs to be dealt with.

A lot of times, people who survive cancel culture are people who have the mental toughness to ignore things that can be ignored. Those who failed to recuperate after getting canceled lacked that fortitude–they let their emotions get ahead of them, and reactions and decisions driven by emotions usually make a crisis worse.

Know the battlefield

One chapter of Wesley’s book talks about “knowing your battlefield—the Internet.”

It actually means understanding that anyone can say anything to you at any time online.

In his experience putting out fires for brands and politicians, Twitter is where most of the action happens. It is the 4th most visited website in the world, but it ranks first in what journalists use the most.

On Twitter, you can watch the conversations happen in real-time. Anyone can jump in and participate, and things can go viral very fast. The media watches those conversations happen, and when things go viral (and sometimes, even if they do not), they write articles about them and put them on the news. It gains more attention and the virality grows, and it becomes a vicious cycle of toxicity.

The good news for entrepreneurs is that, nowadays, crises happen every 30 minutes. But most of the time, if you ignore it, it solves itself and goes away, forgotten.

How do we deal with or “fix” cancel culture?

One of the reasons why cancel culture propagates a lot in our world today is because people have “no real problems” to deal with. Wesley expounds on it, saying that our quality of life as a nation is better than it has ever been before. “Not to say that all Americans live a good life,” he adds, but a lot of people participating in cancel culture have enough food, a secure and safe place to live, and every comfort they want and need.

And according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when people have the basic needs for survival down, they get bored and have nothing to worry about other than what celebrities said or did on reality TV.

If we want to get rid of cancel culture, it has to start with each and every one of us.

Before posting a comment online, a good litmus test is to ask ourselves, “Is this something that I would say to this person’s face?” If we don’t have the courage to say it in person, maybe we shouldn’t be posting it online.

“Everyone needs to chill out and figure out how to stand firm in their beliefs without being a jerk,” Wesley says. There is a way to disagree with other people without being disagreeable.

In Wesley’s opinion, if cancel culture continues to get worse, it could mean the death of democracy and free speech. Everyone is afraid to speak up. Opinions that people don’t agree with are generalized and branded as “hate speech.”

“We all need to learn how to chill out and figure out how to speak our truth without being an asshole,” Wesley says.

Follow Wesley Donehue

Find out more about Wesley on his website, or you can follow him on Instagram (@wesleydonehue).

You can also check out his book, Under Fire, to learn the 13 rules to survive cancel culture.

DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.

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