Can reputation be salvaged in an era of wokeness and ‘cancel-culture’?

Joaquin Phoenix’s BAFTAs acceptance speech went viral after he addressed systemic racism in film and TV. Using a high-profile platform to focus on inequality is nothing new, it’s almost expected in the age of ‘wokeness’.

It was the buzzword of the 2010s and calls out everything from political ignorance to cultural appropriation. It’s opened the door to cancel-culture: a trend of attempting to ruin the reputation, and eventually the careers, of public figures who’ve shown prejudice.

Camila Cabello recently found herself in the eye of a storm on social media after an abandoned Tumblr account dotted with racist comedy was traced back to her. She was 15 at the time. Even her emotional apology could not prevent the online outrage – that still hasn’t stopped.

It’s important to hold people to account, otherwise it’ll normalise the problem. But is it fair to keep punishing someone for a mistake they made online at 15? Or, true to form, to cancel them? We have to remember that social media is an extension of the arm for Gen-Z – it’s ingrained in their culture. In a pre-social world, ‘thoughts’ were just that: thoughts. In 2020, they’re more often than not written online for the world to see in 140 characters.

For an influencer, whose sole audience is on social media, being on the receiving end of its unforgiving tongue can be harmful. If they find themselves in the line of fire based on old posts, the exhausted ‘screenshot of an apologetic paragraph on the notes app’ is no longer convincing. 

Reputations can be salvaged – we, in PR, know that more than most, it’s our stock in trade. For today’s culture-makers, it’s time to pay heed to history – learn why some language is offensive by understanding its origins, before they tap the keyboards with abandon. It’s time to work with charities and other organisations to speak to the victims of prejudice who are most affected by their language. 

Audiences don’t want influencers to close the lid on ever-pertinent issues, they want to see empathy and genuine efforts towards bettering themselves.

Having a self-perceived social awareness can certainly lean towards elitism, and wokeness is not without its detractors. It’s seen as a bandwagon; young people with progressive ideas are associated with a grudge against free speech. This has created a space for the ‘anti-woke hero’: they’re opinionated, they’re brave, they’re Piers Morgan. They’ve built up a following of people who are tired of political correctness. Having controversial opinions has certainly proved to be a profile booster – just look at what Laurence Fox is up to.

After a decade of social change following Black Lives Matter and Me Too, people are attuned to the impact of protesting. It’s a power-in-numbers game that’s translated to social media and a realisation that, through galvanising enough support, someone can be ‘cancelled’. But the discourse around cancel culture is shifting and reparation is achievable. Importantly, when it comes to reputation, it’s about more than deleting your old offensive posts, written at a point when you didn’t know any better; it’s about managing and championing what you know now.