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Balancing Risk and Authenticity in Cancel Culture

authenticity cancel culture media personalities personal branding reputation management Jan 19, 2024

By Alanna Fairey

When I was 22, I was working as a freelance stylist in Toronto. By that point, I had already worked at Toronto Fashion Week and had done work for Global News. But I was about to walk into what I hoped would be my big break: I would be styling a well-known Toronto media personality (who I will not name) for a series of photoshoots. For someone who was looking to get her foot in the door so soon after completing their undergrad, it felt surreal. It felt like such an endorsement of me as a young professional, maybe even me as a person.

And it ended up being an experience from hell. 

This woman was awful to me from the get-go. Within five minutes of meeting her on set, I was instructed to “only speak when spoken to”, condescendingly being told that if I needed to talk to her, it was for emergencies only - I “looked like a smart girl” and should know what “real emergencies look like”. She refused to learn my name, would pretend I wasn’t in the room, and generally made me feel like I didn’t belong.

I felt deflated and so small. If I were to find myself in that situation now at 31, I would’ve had the strength to fight back without fear of consequence. But back then, I was still so young and looking for real world experience, so I didn’t speak up about her behaviour, afraid that by doing so I would be denied opportunities in the future. 

The only thing that motivated me was this belief that one day I would be successful and if she ever reached out to work with me, I would coolly decline. 

But I wouldn’t get that chance. 

In 2020, this woman got caught up in a race scandal on social media that ultimately derailed her career. I watched on the sidelines as this woman lost brand partnerships, her new TV show was cancelled, she was fired from a number of TV segments, and her famous friends who she stood on the backs of slowly but surely turned their backs on her. 

To put it simply: she was cancelled. 

Four years later, her reputation has never fully recovered. 

My personal feelings about this individual aside, I do believe that in this age of social media, you need to guard your reputation at all costs. Whenever I meet with clients for the first time during our content meetings, one of the first things that they will tell me is that they don’t want their posts to get overly political or controversial, since they “don’t want to get cancelled.”

Entrepreneurs, almost by nature, are risk-takers and their content and views reflect that as they position themselves as thought leaders. 

So the question remains: how can entrepreneurs strike a balance between taking risks and maintaining an authentic personal brand without falling victim to cancel culture?

Risk in Authenticity

Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them.” This same principle can be applied when potential clients go through our brand discovery process. 

Authenticity is one of our core values here at Brand of a Leader, and if we had a client who was naturally a “jerk” and they owned that, we would amplify that. Fortunately though, our screening process filters such prospects out. 

However, there’s a catch: to be seen in this light, the client needs to be ready to handle the risks and consequences that come with it.

When you gain visibility, you reveal your true self, and this authenticity can have consequences, possibly leading to your downfall. For instance, during discovery calls, some individuals express concerns about being portrayed negatively. Our stance is that if that truly reflects who you are, then perhaps the real you catching up is inevitable, whether on a broad scale or within your own circle of influence.

While we should be able to exercise our right to free speech, that shouldn’t be a hall pass to hate speech. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned these last few years, it is that the court of public opinion is not forgiving.

After my experience working with this media personality, I had worried that there was something she didn’t like about me specifically, and wondered what I could’ve done differently for her to like me. When her scandal made the headlines, an influx of people started sharing their stories about her, and they were all so similar to my own. Reading the comments and stories made me realize that she wasn’t awful to me because of something I had done. Rather, this is just who she is, and nothing I could’ve done would’ve made her act a different way towards me.

Even though she had always been like this and didn’t pretend to be someone else, the irony is that her authenticity jeopardized her reputation and she will forever be associated with this scandal she put herself in.  

Avoiding Cancel Culture 

Is there really a way to avoid cancel culture completely? Truthfully, there isn’t a guarantee.  

However, there are some strategies you can follow to lessen your chances of falling victim to cancel culture. 

First, never underestimate the power in building goodwill. This involves transcending the superficial platitude of being merely “a good person” and delving into the realm of substantial actions. Demonstrating kindness and genuine goodness eventually fosters forgiveness and understanding from the general public.

The second aspect underscores the value of not standing for everything. This notion reminds me of the quote, “If you stand for nothing, you fall for anything.” Select distinct content pillars and remain authentic within those chosen lanes. This consistency, exemplified by personal experiences and unwavering authenticity, builds a recognizable and forgivable persona, even in the face of unexpected revelations.

Most importantly, I believe working with a personal branding agency is a worthwhile investment. Crafting a personal brand and cultivating widespread visibility isn’t just about self-promotion; it also serves as a formidable defense against cancel culture. Contrary to common perception, personal branding functions as a shield rather than an exposure risk. 

The power of personal branding becomes apparent when people possess a comprehensive understanding of who you are. This approach not only establishes a valuable connection with your audience but also positions you in a favorable light. In instances where misinterpretations arise, having an established personal brand prompts a more forgiving and nuanced response. Far from exposing vulnerabilities, a well-crafted personal brand serves as a protective mechanism, ensuring that, even in the face of potential exposure, there is a reservoir of goodwill and understanding to draw upon. 

Do I think that this media personality who was cruel to me so early in my career should stay cancelled? Truthfully, I don’t have an answer. I have a personal experience with this woman that has created a bias, and I admittedly wouldn’t judge her fairly.

What I will say is that it can be possible to build your brand back up after being cancelled. Yet, what is better is to preempt a reputational crisis. With the right strategy in place and enough goodwill built through execution of it, you can build an authentic personal brand without consequences. We are here to help you do just that!

Alanna Fairey is a Client Engagement Specialist at Brand of a Leader. She has a diverse background in fashion communications, branding, and writing. Connect with Alanna here.

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