Fear of being 'cancelled' stops many business chiefs speaking out, research finds

Four in 10 business leaders say the fear of being called out prevents them from acting or speaking out on certain social issues, according to a new study.

Ben & Jerry's is a brand known for speaking out on social issues. It released 'Pecan Resist' in the US in 2018 to promote activism and raise money for progressive causes
Ben & Jerry's is a brand known for speaking out on social issues. It released 'Pecan Resist' in the US in 2018 to promote activism and raise money for progressive causes

A survey of 302 UK and US C-level and director-level executives from companies with more than 1,000 employees found that for 42 per cent, the fear of being subjected to a backlash was the top reason they might hold back from acting on or speaking out about certain social issues.

For 40 per cent of leaders, the main fear was of a negative impact on their reputation of potentially being “called out” for getting it wrong.

The YouGov survey, commissioned by PR agency Alfred, was carried out between 11 and 25 July 2021.

Alfred said the findings suggest the "fear of backlash or getting 'cancelled' may hold many brands back from engaging with purpose movements".

Dan Neale, founder and managing director of Alfred, said: “Following COP26, it has become even more apparent than ever that governments are too slow, hamstrung by politics, to address the major challenges and issues of today. This leaves the door open for brands and business to align with the values of their stakeholders and deliver a positive impact on the world beyond simply offering a great product or service."

However, he continued: “There are pitfalls involved when brands look to shift and embrace this new reality. Being cancelled as a result of getting it wrong is a clear and present danger for brands looking to serve and support a variety of global movements.”

The 'Brands & Movements' report proffers a six-step Brand Movement Process businesses can follow to ensure they “get it right”, moving through ‘origination’, ‘preparation’, ‘commitment’, ‘action and advocacy’, ‘milestone measurement’ and ‘evolution’.

Separate, earlier research of consumers, contained in the report, suggests the public are indeed expecting action from brands.

If found that 48 per cent of millennial and Gen Z consumers would be likely to boycott a company or brand that supported an issue they disagreed on. Almost as many (42 per cent) would join others in taking action against the brand on the issue. The same proportion say they have boycotted a product or company in the past 12 months because they didn't agree with the values or behaviour of the company.

Neale argued that not only does the context require brands to fill the “gaping holes left by governments”, but this is the true expectation of their consumers.

“Brands and businesses need to shift their thinking,” he said. “Radically embrace this new reality, not only to drive growth, but to survive the coming decade.”

The research of young consumers was carried out for the 'Purpose Pulse' study and included 2,878 individuals in the UK, US, Germany and Nigeria aged 16 to 39. It was conducted between 8 and 21 January 2021.

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