Zeitgeist of Now: The rise of public shame & social offense
by Jason Stewart (@HaveYouHeard_SA) If we don’t take into account the very few prime ministers or presidents who’ve apologised over the years for the actions of their previous regimes, the public apology phenomenon had its beginnings less than two years ago in late 2017.
Most often, it was a celebrity, influencer or person of popularity or power who said or did something that others considered offensive — in some instances, breaking the law and not being sanctioned — and was forced to apologise, publicly.
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The first apologies of this phenomenon weren’t exactly quick off the mark, and not at all sincere. Very soon, however, these people learnt that, if the apology weren’t quick and didn’t take full accountability, they would be subjected to a tsunami of anger, most of it on social media. Within months, we witnessed celebrities et al apologising for things that they should have, and needn’t have, apologised for, just to escape the relentless wrath of the those (usually the young radical liberals) looking for any kind of offense, past or present, or emblazon on the social channels.
We predicted then that there’d be services or consultants who would specialise in the art of the apology, counselling or coaching their clients how to say sorry quickly and effectively so as to diminish public outrage as quickly as possible… and see it redirected to someone else.
Template of predictability
Today, the personal public social apology is efficiently and effectively given by celebrities et al who embrace their mistakes, explain their personal growth and thank their victims or persecutors for their lessons. It’s a template of predictability, but delivers both the shaming and justice those morally outraged are looking for.
WATCH: Communications Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has issued an apology for breaking the lockdown rules aimed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
— ECR_Newswatch (@ECR_Newswatch) April 8, 2020
There are two sides to this phenomenon. On the one side, it’s legitimately about holding people of power and influence, who’ve previously been able to bully, offend or damage others with impunity for decades, to account. Think Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. On the other side is the extreme version of political correctness, where people are searching to be offended and taking words out of context, ignoring intent and creating a reason to be feel victimised.
The first should be celebrated as it’s part of the wave of social justice providing the previously maligned, ignored and abused with a voice and a shot at justice. It’s forcing those in power controlling the shape and structure of institutional accountability to ensure that they’re fair, transparent and respectful to all. It’s been a long and hard struggle by many fighting what was an old, traditional institutionalised way of being — another form of disruption ensuring that the various levels of power adapt to the new social norms of today.
Rise of services
In the past, celebrities et al could weather a storm. With social media able to fan a small spark into a wildfire, and the digital record allowing no-one to ever forget or be forgiven, that luxury is no longer.
And now we see the rise of services catering to the growing increase of pubic shame and social offence. For example, ‘disgrace insurance’ allows celebrities and the companies that profit from them to insure against loss of reputation, respect and public value and company profit. Payouts aren’t linked to the action (drunk driving, racial slur, sexual offense) but to the level of public reaction to these actions, the aptly named Public Outcry Index.
Is it laudable that the index measures and tracks social norms and our perception of misbehaviour, rather than ranking acts of offense, or is it a sad indictment of society today?
What brands may learn from this phenomenon
- The margin for error on mistakes is almost nil. As a brand, there’s always an opportunity to offend.
- Some brands have a PR plan in place for when a crisis hits, but most are unprepared.
- Brands should conduct possible offense audits (POAs) and prepare reaction plans that allow for immediate and comprehensive responses.
- Short, personal and non-corporate speak is of paramount importance (and these may be pre-approved by legal).
Jason Stewart is co-founder of HaveYouHeard (@HaveYouHeard_SA), a full-service agency. Zeitgeist of Now, his new column on MarkLives, is inspired by the agency’s proprietary tool developed to understand the invisible but powerful forces that influence people, products, culture and societies. If we appreciate these, he argues, we become more-effective marketers.