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When the Cancelled Strike Back
How is an Instagram scammer like the former President?
Last week I reviewed Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It’s a book well worth reading, and one of the central questions the book grapples with is why some people are crushed by internet shame mobs, while others seem to come out of the controversy fine. Ronson believes, and I agree, that narrative is a key part of the story:
One of the central things that happens in an episode of shaming is that the narrative of a person’s life is upended. Justine Sacco was an upstanding citizen with a rising PR career… until she simply became the AIDS tweet lady. Jonah Lehrer was a wunderkind writer with grand ambitions… until he became the plagiarism guy. Lindsey Stone was a small town girl who loved working with disabled people… until she became the disrespects-our-dead-troops girl. These folks have a mental model of who they are, and it impacts how they see themselves and how the world sees them. In an instant, that model is discarded and the entire world imposes a new narrative about who they are. A narrative in which they’re a scumbag defined by only one moment or one feature of their life.
Later I concluded that fighting to control one’s own narrative is the key to surviving a public shaming (or cancellation, as we would call it now):
If you fight for your own narrative you can carve out a group of people who thinks you did nothing wrong, or that you’re being treated unfairly by the mob, etc. That group can sustain you with a positive narrative about your life, a narrative where you’re not the one note villain that the public shaming would make you.
If I was running PR for someone engaged in a cancellation attempt, this is what I’d tell them. There’s a narrative about you currently being formed, and you have to get ahead of that and interrupt it with your own narrative. It could be anything - the people cancelling you are opportunists, you’re the actual victim and just misunderstood, you meant to be offensive or bad in a sort of artistic or ironic way. But you have to fight back and not go quietly.
Matty Healy’s Meta-Narrative
The entire piece is worth reading, and Healy is portrayed as an artist who is obsessed with public image. He’s hyper-aware of the absurdities involved in living the public eye, and that fans having certain expectations of stars. He revels in subverting those expectations, toying with them, making a meta-performance of his own image. He tells a story about how as a child he thought that he might be stuck in a real-life Truman Show. He says that he believes his life is “a balance between what is real, what is said, what happens, what people believe, what people project, and what is true.”
All this to say: Healy seemingly thinks about nothing else as much as the narrative of his own life. Of course he knows the best move to being cancelled is to fight back and establish a counter-narrative.
And I’ve gotta say, Matty Healy seems like an asshole, but I’m not sure he’s wrong? Without excusing any the creepy stuff or gross comments, do we really believe that most of the people aghast at Healy’s behavior are really in pain, really deeply affected? Or removing Healy entirely, do we really believe this about any celebrity scandal that catches fire on social media? For a typical scandal, what percent of the outraged crowd are genuinely outraged and what percent are posturing for status or just having fun in the dogpile? In Healy’s uncharitable words - “getting as close to it as possible so you can see how good I am”?
Depends on the scandal, to be sure. There are sometimes weighty scandals involving horrible abuse. But there are some scandals that have little serious weight at all. For at least some scandals, I’m sure there’s more of the ‘posturing’ than the ‘actually affected’. And it’s very interesting that Healy’s public maneuver was to specifically call this fact out to create a counter-narrative about the crowd itself. Attack first and attack often, the new meta-strategy for celebrity PR?
Caroline Calloway Gets What She Wanted
Of course, a counter narrative where you directly attack those attacking you won’t always work. It’s much easier to do if your cancellation is ambiguous and could be interpreted in different ways - like insensitive comments on a podcast. If you directly do crimes, the facts are pretty open-and-shut that you do crimes, and you have openly talked about many of your famous crimes… well, you may need a different strategy.
In this case, there are a few routes you can take. You can go for a sort of “I did the Bad Thing but really there were understandable reasons and I am sympathetic” narrative. Maybe you didn’t intend to do the Bad Thing! You just got caught up and things spiraled out of control, and it was unintentional. Maybe you did the Bad Thing, but it was performance art or a statement about society of some kind. Maybe the Bad Thing was real but exaggerated. You can also go for a classic redemption story. It’s true, it’s all true, but look how I’ve learned! Look how I’m going to be a better person on the other side of all this mess! If you’re feeling really ballsy, you can go for both at once - redeeming oneself even though really there’s no need for redemption.
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There’s also probably a gender dynamic here. Edgy male rock stars perhaps can be more confrontational. But if you are, say, a female influencer who depends on an ineffable feminine style of likability to make your money you may need this more indirect approach.
Anyways! Here’s Caroline Calloway on her cancellation, also in the New Yorker:
We’ve talked about Calloway before here, and I continue to be astounded at how adeptly she keeps the grift going. Like Healy, she is very obviously obsessed with her own public image and the public narrative of her own life. She’s manipulating that public narrative in an incredibly brazen and self-aware way, letting us in on the fun with a wink and a nod. Yes, she’s a scammer. She’s leaning in to it, or as she says ‘following the riptide’. She gives us the admission, but then also positions herself as Schrödinger’s scammer - she both is and isn’t, at the same time. She admits she did it, but it was all overblown. She did things wrong, but is also a victim. There’s something about the story I (and countless others) just can’t look away from.
The other interesting part of this is that Calloway isn’t just controlling her own narrative. She’s actively making ‘person who controls her own narrative in a brazen way’ a defining feature of her narrative. It’s like watching a movie comprised solely of behind-the-scenes footage, but no actual movie. She’s not just playing the PR narrative game, she’s eager to spell out exactly why she needs to play the game, how she does it, and why it works:
Between Healy and Calloway, the last week has been a masterclass in celebrities fighting for their own public narratives. This phenomenon has been building for a while now. We may be exiting the age of the groveling male apology and entering the age of defiance and double down. More and more often celebrities - both internet influencers and actual celebrities - are realizing how important it is to Never Surrender. And it’s not a coincidence that Calloway mentions the undefeated master of this game, Donald Trump. The primary lesson of the Trump years (at least in terms of PR strategy) is that if you have a loyal enough fan base you never have to apologize for anything. No apologies, no backtracking. Always double and triple down, accuse your enemies of lying, exaggerating, and generally being evil. And if all else fails flood the zone with shit.
Trump practically invented the strategy of ‘have so many scandals that none of them end up sticking’. Elon Musk seems to be running a similar strategy at Twitter. And Calloway isn’t at the level of those two yet, but she’s aware enough to know that leaning in to scandal only makes her more intriguing. I’d be stunned if we didn’t see this more and more in the future - celebrities either directly challenging the online mobs that are angry at them, or leaning it to the anger and embracing it.