By Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of crisis management firm Red Banyan, which provides crisis PR consulting to clients around the world. 

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The new year is finally here, and we’re all eager for a fresh start after a challenging 2020. But it isn’t as simple as “out with the old, and in with the new.”

In addition to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a year filled with extremes that taught us to mind what we say. Volatile online activism and political unrest rocked our nation to the point of riots and continue to pose a major threat to businesses and organizations of all sizes. Well-publicized celebrity scandals and viral social media meltdowns by “regular” people everywhere have shown us that we must be hypervigilant about what we say publicly and how we say it. Otherwise, we run the risk of our words and intentions being misconstrued. A single ill-conceived social media post or even a poorly worded comment can have dire consequences in a world where many rush to judgment and err on the side of outrage.

Because hard-won reputations can be elevated or destroyed by Tweetstorm, organizations of every type must proceed with caution and make sure they share messages in ways that don’t offend. Precise communications are more important than ever in these challenging times. Companies and individuals should do their homework, think before they speak and be prepared to react quickly if their comments unexpectedly stir controversy. To help limit the risk of controversy, reputational damage and revenue loss, here are two key pitfalls that every organization should strive to avoid in 2021.

1. Avoid The Wrath Of The Cancel Culture Mob

Touchy topics seem to be the order of the day, and what you say or even what you don’t can land you in hot water. When emotions run high, there’s almost always someone who will disagree with your views. And if widespread sentiment on social media turns against you, you or your business could quickly become a victim of cancel culture.

“Cancel culture” describes a phenomenon that occurs when people attempt to “cancel,” or diminish support for, people or businesses after they’ve said or done something considered offensive. The goal of cancel culture seems to me to be to wage war against those who are deemed to have committed an error for which they should be punished. Often, this manifests itself in destroyed online reputations. Cancel culture attacks can come at their targets fast and furious. To avoid problems, you need to know where the land mines are buried.

2. Tread Carefully When Weighing In

Social media became a battleground in 2020. Some were attacked for being outspoken in their support for certain issues, movements and topics; others for failing to demonstrate sufficient support. Groups of people were vilified for blatantly inflammatory rhetoric or making insensitive comments. Others were taken to task when their attempts to address certain topics publicly inadvertently sparked criticism. Doing and saying the “right” thing became difficult if not impossible. Discussions of topics like politics, sexual harassment, racial bias and inequality and others can fall into a very sensitive area, and people have to exercise great caution when talking about such topics. For many companies, weighing in on these issues or failing to comment put them into uncomfortable positions.

Whether you’re supportive or critical, your company’s reputation may be tarnished by mass public shaming via social media if popular opinion turns against you. Be aware.

Keep in mind that people have their own opinions and sometimes misinterpret others’. They may rush to judgment, often seeing things only in black and white. If the topic is sensitive, opinions will run the gamut. Weigh the risks and benefits before you step into the fray. 

Safeguard Against Social Media Screwups

If you follow the news or current events at all, then there’s a very good chance you witnessed at least a few social media meltdowns during the past year. Business owners, team members at any level or private individuals who are active in any fashion on social media will want to take the necessary steps to avoid being caught in the middle of a controversy in 2021.

How you address almost any issue these days can be fraught with risk. What’s acceptable and unacceptable seems to shift quickly and unpredictably.

Before you complete that post you just typed out, ask yourself: Is it worth weighing in? Carefully consider any potential fallout that could come from your content by pausing for a moment and then utilizing the most powerful filter available: your own brain. 

People in the business world especially need to be careful: Make a controversial statement, and you risk alienating a large part of your potential customer base. These days there is a tendency for online trolls to rush to judgment and assume the worst, so make sure that the pros of your post outweigh the possible cons before you go public.

Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation seems to be the order of the day. For example, some people who’ve posted Instagram pictures of fancy food plates have found themselves targeted by haters who shamed them for being blind to those suffering from hunger. Some celebrity A-listers who’ve shared photos of private jets and island getaways while the masses remain largely on lockdown at home have been slammed for insensitivity. Heading into 2021, don’t forget to pause for a moment before you weigh in on controversial social issues or pretty much any social media post. Protect your brand by employing an ABC strategy — always be careful!

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Roland Millaner