MONDAY 27 JUL 2020 10:25 AM

KEEP QUIET OR CARRY ON

For the last few years, J.K Rowling has been on a reputational roller coaster, with her controversial views sparking many a Twitter storm. While exploring the ups and downs of Rowling’s public perception, Tim Jotischky, director of reputation at the PHA group, argues that brands have three options when taking a stance on cultural issues to safeguard their reputation: make sure they are on the ‘right side of the debate’, stay silent or embrace controversy.

For many years, J.K Rowling enjoyed national treasure status as her seven Harry Potter novels and the eight-film franchise achieved record-breaking success. A philanthropist and outspoken supporter of liberal causes, she was the darling of the chattering classes.

But, more recently, she has gone from national treasure to becoming a high-profile victim of so-called ‘cancel culture.’ How has this happened and what are the implications?

Nothing goes unnoticed when you have more than 14 million followers on social media. When Rowling ‘liked’ a tweet which referred to transgender women as “men in dresses” two years ago, it unleashed a torrent of criticism. Her spokesperson dismissed it as “a clumsy and middle-aged moment” and the Harry Potter community seemed to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt.

However, last December, Rowling expressed support for a British researcher who filed a lawsuit against her former employer, claiming she was a victim of discrimination because of her “gender critical” views. This provoked a heated backlash from the LBGTQ+ community, which further intensified when Rowling engaged in conversation on the controversy. In June, the author took aim at an article that referred to “people who menstruate,” instead of “women” to avoid offending trans people. Once again, she received an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

In response, Rowling published a 3,700-word essay on gender, sex, abuse and fear, to explain her views and the reasonings behind them. This took things to a new level, sparking denouncements of Rowling by Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, stars of the Harry Potter films; a mass walk-out by authors at her literary agency; and even led to vandals in her adopted home city of Edinburgh smearing an imprint of her hands with blood.

You can call this phenomenon ‘woke wars’ or ‘cancel culture’ but whatever name you give it, the message is the same: speak out at your peril if your views are judged to be ‘unsound’.

Rowling can withstand the onslaught better than most, thanks to a personal fortune of £795m, and reports of a slowdown in her book sales in the US are unlikely to worry someone with more than 500 million sales to her name. She also has a long-standing relationship with her agent Neil Blair, which has been a bedrock – Blair effectively told other authors threatening to leave his agency that if they didn’t believe in free speech, he didn’t want to represent them.

But few individuals or brands can afford to risk alienating their audiences as Rowling has done. It has become fashionable for brands to speak out over cultural issues, apparently believing that their followers expect them to take a pro-active position – Black Lives Matter being the most obvious example – but the risks of doing so are sometimes greater than they realise. Speaking out and getting the tone and sentiment slightly wrong can be more damaging than staying silent.

There is also risk in pumping out platitudes or issuing empty statements; consumers are quick to recognise hollow brand building exercises. When companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Nike came out in support of Black Lives Matter, critics claimed that none of them had showed a long-term commitment to the fight against racial injustice. It is easy to lend public support to a fashionable cause, but more challenging to demonstrate a tangible commitment to changing from within.  A brand which takes a stand on the issue of diversity and inclusion must be willing to embed change within its business and be prepared to be judged on its record. It cannot be a short-time response; this is all about the long haul.

Similarly, brands must consider their own track record before deciding to speak out on a high-profile issue. L’Oréal Paris recently caused a stir when it posted a statement on Instagram, proclaiming its solidarity with the BAME community. This was met with a great deal of cynicism as users pointed to the company’s dismissal of model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf in 2017. Admitting past or ongoing mistakes is not an easy thing to do, but if it is coupled with a sincere apology and a credible plan to put things right it can be an effective response.

Rowling, along with 150 other public figures, recently signed an open letter denouncing the "restriction of debate” in modern culture. They believe “cancel culture” represents the end of free speech, but for a new generation brought up on the concept of “safe spaces”, it simply means calling people out when they are judged to have made offensive statements.

With battle lines drawn, this war will be waged with ever growing intensity for years to come. Its impact is not confined to the Twittersphere; customer boycotts and public protests are real concerns for any business.

The choice appears stark. Either embrace controversy and make it your personal brand – a course of action adopted by actor Laurence Fox – or make sure you are on the ‘right side of the debate’. There is a third way, however: stay out of the debate altogether. Sometimes silence can indeed be golden.

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