Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have heard of organisations or individuals falling victim to cancel culture and being unceremoniously banished from the communities they operate in.
Merriam-Webster defines cancel culture or ‘cancelling’ as the practice of withdrawing one’s support for (someone, such as a celebrity, or something, such as a company) publicly, and especially on social media, as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.
Prominent public figures that have been cancelled include TV host Ellen DeGeneres for allegations of workplace abuse, author J.K. Rowling for her transphobic comments, and more recently, actor Will Smith for slapping comedian Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Academy Awards.
Brands and companies are no less susceptible to cancel culture. Take for example Dutch brewer Heineken and its controversial pro-vaccination social media ad campaign in 2021. The world’s second-largest beer manufacturer ran a minute-long ad, which according to the company, “celebrates a group of vaccinated seniors who are able to safely get back out to enjoy bars and clubs and socialise again.” The ad infuriated anti-vaxxers who promptly called for a boycott of the company.
In the business context, cancel culture may lead to consumers boycotting a brand after they have said or done something offensive. A 2018 survey by Edelman found that nearly two-thirds of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. A more recent survey conducted in America in 2020 by CompareCards.com found that nearly 4 in 10 consumers are currently boycotting at least one company.
The modern consumer is prepared to sever ties with businesses that do not align with their values.
At this point, you might ask: does cancel culture pose a threat to the maritime industry and should we be concerned?
I posit that the maritime industry should start taking cancel culture more seriously because the industry is facing more scrutiny from the media and general public than ever before.
Until recently, the maritime industry had operated largely under the public radar as the ‘invisible’ part of the global supply chain.
Today, the industry faces pressure across various policy themes. It is expected to decarbonise, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and embrace environmental regulation whilst concurrently dealing with supply chain disruptions and the crew change crisis brought about or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this context, cancel culture functions as the sword of Damocles that hangs over those who hide behind buzzwords and corporate speak. When a company talks about environmental stewardship and sustainability, they have to walk the talk. There is no room for hypocrisy.
At the fundamental level, the maritime industry must recognise that there is no ivory tower in cancel culture. Every organisation and brand, regardless of sector and industry they operate in, is susceptible to being cancelled.
When things go awry, be it a cybersecurity attack or allegations of workplace bullying or corruption, organisations must respond to their stakeholders in a swift, decisive and proactive fashion.
Cyber lynch mobs smell weakness when organisations choose not to say or do anything, and it emboldens them to gang up and seize control of the crisis narrative. Organisations that choose to stay silent do so at their own peril.
Cancel culture looks set to stay and cannot be willed away. For the maritime industry, the way forward is to recognise it not just as a function of public accountability but also a feature of the crisis communications landscape.