Callout Culture: How to Respond to Criticisms Online

    February 01 2021

    Callout Culture: How to Respond to Criticisms Online

    February 01 2021  |  Inspiration , Marketing , Social Media

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    In the earliest days of social media, Facebook had a mission “to make the world more open and connected.” Over the past 15 years, Facebook and other giants of social media have done exactly that – bringing connectivity to the world and democratizing its endless array of voices. 

    In time, though, those voices have gone from simply being heard to deafening in their screams for social and cultural justice – birthing what we now know to be call-out culture.

    Not to be confused with cancel culture, call-out culture represents publicly criticizing (or calling out) a person or a brand for violating some form of accepted behavioral standards.

    Growing more widespread on social media in the last few years, call-out culture has oftentimes been politically charged or in relation to social justice reform. Yet, individuals and brands have also found themselves at the center of call-out culture given things they have done, said, or simply been associated with.

    Responding to online criticism is tricky to say the least. But that’s likely due to the fact that call-out culture itself is hard to pin down. 

    Is there a right or wrong way to approach calling someone out? Does calling out someone need to take place in a public forum? How do you measure tact when correcting yet allowing them room to, well, make corrections?

    We're digging into call-out culture and how those who are the center of criticism should respond to it.  

    What is Call-Out Culture?

    Can you think back to a moment in time when there wasn’t a boycott or trending hashtag calling out a brand or public figure? We can’t either. Unfortunately, that’s how ingrained call-out culture is in our media landscape.

    Although there’s no formal definition of call-out culture, call-out culture is really quite simple: someone does something wrong, a person or persons tell them about it, and they avoid doing it in the future. It really should be that simple. But, alas, few things are that simple on social media.

    Given the anonymity of social media, call-out culture can be very hostile online. Users can unleash extremely harsh criticism at a person or a brand and very literally hide behind a profile – as stated in this very pointed NYT op-ed

    For example, last October Kraft came under fire for their “Send Noods” campaign surrounding their mac and cheese noodles. Social media was up in arms about the so-called suggestive ad which very quickly disappeared. 

    Then there was the death of Mr. Peanut in February. The Planters Super Bowl LIV ad gone bad received endless social media backlash. Was a fictional character dying just too real? Or was it done in too close a proximity to the passing of NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant? Nonetheless, call-out culture was in full effect in each above-mentioned case. And the brands both issued apologies for their respective campaigns. 

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    Pros & Cons of Call-Out Culture

    In those brand examples, the companies took responsibility for their mistakes and remained upright. They didn’t go out of business or suffer any long-term effects of call-out culture. 

    This is largely because they listened, understood they were wrong and took accountability for their actions. Also, their offenses weren’t nearly as bad as others. This is one of the positive forms of call-out culture. But each scenario doesn’t turn out as pleasant as those. Let’s compare the pros and cons of call-out culture, and what it looks like when it works and when it doesn’t.


    Accountability - an individual or brand understands they were wrong and therefore can learn from their actions and not repeat the same mistakes.

    Correction - Following acceptance of wrongdoing, that individual or brand can take the necessary steps to correct their actions. 

    Transparency - Addressing issues on a public forum like social media, allows for issues to be resolved in the light where others could potentially learn from another’s wrongdoing or mistake.

    Long term Impact - Correction today can mean a better way of doing things tomorrow, and allows for simple practices today to become policy tomorrow.


    Poor Communication - Delivering criticism without empathy or tact could cause the accused to react only to the way the criticism was communicated rather than the context of the message.   

    Shaming - Call-out culture can be emotional and triggering. Sometimes comes across as shaming or guilting, which dilutes the intent of criticism, and turns the communication into something mean-spirited therefore limiting the ability to reach a resolution. 

    Lack of Discourse - When shaming, guilting, or bullying plays a role in call-out culture, it makes it almost impossible for constructive discourse to get to the root of an issue.

    Call-Out Culture vs. Cancel Culture

    While call-out culture certainly isn’t perfect and has its downside, one thing it’s not is cancel culture.

    Arguably among the worst thing to invade social media culture since its inception is cancel culture. There’s a finality to cancel culture that’s not represented in call-out culture. So, the primary difference between the two is that call-out culture has a goal, which is to create conversation and correction. 

    Adversely, cancel culture is about a lack of conversation or discourse. Its primary goal is to end things – to end a person, a business, or even a movement, without giving that person an opportunity to correct their action or even possibly their mistake. 

    Ultimately, call-out culture allows you to hold people accountable for their actions. Cancel culture just allows you to shut them down without educating them and others in the process. Calling out someone and canceling them are two different things. The latter is almost always wrong. But, as with generations past, the approach to each varies by both attitude and communication mediums. 

    Generation Z: Call-Out Culture and Maybe Even Cancel Culture

    Generation Z can sometimes walk a fine line between call-out culture and cancel culture. Because of that, brands and older generations can view them as “judgmental.” But actually, Gen Z’s quick instinct to mobilize and speak up for what’s right isn’t much different than what Baby Boomers and Gen X did when they criticized the apartheid in South Africa or protested for the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. The only differences are that Gen Z and Millennials have the internet and social media. 

    Being able to criticize call-out culture and even cancel cancel culture typically comes from a place of privilege. The younger generation is going after the same issues older generations have been trying to fix for years, but instead of bullhorns and signs, they have viral trends on social platforms to do it. 

    Social media is a new form of protest. So, at times, there will be a lack of understanding its impact. But if brands are allowed grace when it comes to their insensitivities and mistakes, so are Gen Z and Millennials. There has to be room for error and empathy. After all, we can all get it wrong — older generations too. Learn more about their “Gen ne Z quoi” in our two marketing guides on Generation Z here.

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    Accepting and Responding to Call-Out Culture

    Call-out culture can certainly seem far from your corner of the world until it happens to you or someone you know. I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling. You know, that moment of panic when you realize you’ve said or done something you shouldn’t have – and someone notices it? You might be headed for a call-out, and social media has a front-row seat for the bout. 

    But reacting to call-out culture is objectively far more important than what you did to fall victim to online scrutiny. When you or your brand is facing criticism, it’s important to consider these three factors of accepting and responding to the online backlash:

    Set an Intention to Learn. First and foremost, accepting that you are wrong is essential to positively face criticism. Moreover, it opens you up to not only correction, but the intention to learn. Understanding that you can be wrong in any given situation widens the pathway for learning – both for yourself and/or your brand. Because ultimately, if you make changes without learning from them, you’re likely to repeat the same mistakes that got you there.

    Listen Without Bias. One of the most common mistakes people or brands make when facing call-out culture is listening with a biased ear. They immediately think that the critic is incorrect, or being too sensitive, or simply doesn’t understand why they did what they did. This is the wrong attitude and will only make things worse. Listen without bias, again with an intention to learn. 

    Be Positive. Although call-out culture can be scary and divisive, approaching the situation with positivity. For yourself and your brand, it’s important that you remember call-out culture is about correction, not cancellation. So, the individual communication to the criticism aims to teach you – not to scold you. 

    Craft a Human Response. After measuring the circumstance surrounding the steps above, craft a human response. It shouldn’t sound like a press release or like your attorney wrote it. Tap into your humanity and speak from the heart. An honest and heartfelt response will show your empathy and willingness to atone.

    Call-out culture isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Sometimes it will be helpful and course-correct issues that play out on social media, and other times it will be divisive and create discourse across the web. 

    But ultimately, when you or your brand is met with online criticism, the right response will help reinstate your brand integrity, create consumer brand loyalty, and restore the faith of your online community.


    More by Darren Griffin and Carrie Boswell

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