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DON’T GASLIGHT YOUR AUDIENCE: HOW TO MAKE TRANSPARENT CONTENT EDITS

June 13, 2020

Let’s face it. We all make mistakes. Even with our workflows to thoroughly vet our sources, proofread our copy, and get the official go-ahead from supervisors, at some point, we will all find ourselves in the delicate position of having to correct our content.

Each one of these situations is unique as our audiences are not always the same and our content/services/and products can vary widely, BUT there is one principle that applies to every content editing situation – DO NOT GASLIGHT YOUR AUDIENCE.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation originating from the film adaptation of a 1938 British play. Gaslighting is when we make our audiences question their own reality (memory, perception, judgment)through the use of denial, misinformation, and disorientation. As you can imagine, being “gaslit” can cause a person to experience confusion, feelings of helplessness, and just generally feel BAD. As a marketer, your intention should always be to make your audience feel heard, respected, and accommodated(to an extent, of course – do not accommodate racism).

So, how can you make the necessary edits to your content without gaslighting your audience and building negative sentiment toward your brand?

1.    The nature of the mistake dictates the nature of the response.

Don’t get me wrong – not every situation requires major response. Let’s take an example from my life this past week (because, like I said, we all mess up).

Purely hypothetically, if you realize that you've misspelled “privilege” as “privelege” in your Facebook post 20 minutes after publishing, you don’t necessarily need to add a note about having made the edit. In that case, feel free to edit the post and move on with your day. If someone calls you out, acknowledge them, validate them, blame a lack of coffee or your work from home feline coworker if you must, then move on.

2.     Some misspellings are worse than others.

While a spelling error may not always require too much consideration, there are some circumstances when a spelling error can have a disastrous effect on your PR and cause your audience real pain, and, a quick, silent revision of that mistake could make the situation even worse.

For this, I’ll use an example from a local media outlet. When you’re publishing blog content that uses the names of real life people, places, or brands, you should always make it a priority to double-check your spelling before publication.This is particularly important when you’re publishing in memoriam content. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re all human beings, and mistakes do happen, but how you handle it in these situations can have a lasting impact on your brand's trust and reliability.

Let’s say you’ve published an article about the recent and unexpected passing of a high school athlete named Derek, but, in the article, you’ve inadvertently written his name as “Derrick”. How do you fix this?

-If you caught the mistake immediately after publication: This one is simple. Make the change. Then, add a statement at the bottom of the blog to indicate when the original was published and that a correction was made. This is an essential step in case viewers had already encountered the mistake. Don’t pretend like it never happened. Acknowledge the experience of your viewers. Acknowledge your mistake. Just own it. Apologize. Correct. But don’t erase.

-If you caught it several hours/days later: Follow the same process as above, but make sure to include the date of the original and updated publications.

-If you receive feedback from your audience asking you to make the correction: It is possible that you won’t notice the mistake yourself and will have it pointed out to you instead. In this case, you may have inadvertently caused your audience significant emotional distress with your mistake, and it’s up to you to try to make it right. Make the correction, add the editorial statement regarding the correction, then respond personally to the complaint with sensitivity and compassion. Simply put, there is no sufficient excuse for this type of mistake, so don’t try to make any. Here’s a sample response:

“Dear ______,
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have issued an immediate correction. We are committed to providing high-quality, honest content for our audience, and we missed the mark today. I apologize for our error. We will do better.”


You could go so far as to implement a new workflow to prevent this type of mistake from happening again. Actions speak louder than words, after all. And,in this particular industry, building trust matters.

-If you receive feedback from Derek’s family member asking you to make the correction:
It is possible that you have caused a great deal of emotional distress with this mistake. There is no excuse. Make the correction, add the editorial statement, and apologize immediately. You may even go so far as to make a public statement on any platforms where you have shared the content (Facebook, Twitter, etc). Think about how you would respond to a friend or family member in this situation – now, remember that your audience, unlike your friends and family members, are most likely PAYING to interact with you. Don't you think you owe them a little kindness in return? In this case, you may be directly profiting from the use of this person"s story. At the very least, you should do your part to share that story accurately and respectfully.

Now, back to the gaslighting – under no circumstances should you revise the content in silence. At best, you will leave your audience questioning themselves, questioning their reality, and generally feeling bad feelings when it comes to your business. At worst, your lack of transparency will speak volumes about your business’ character.

3.     Culturally-insensitive content is not the result of a mistake, so don’t treat it like one.

You may find yourself wanting to edit your content to remove outdated cultural depictions. Right now, we’re seeing large streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max make decisions to remove or add editorial statements with contextual information to culturally-insensitive films. It is up to you how broadly you want to broadcast the removal of these items, but be cognizant not to act as though they were a mistake. The fact that the content was ever published is indicative of larger, systemic conversations which you or your business was at one time involved in perpetuating. It wasn’t an accident that the content was created in the first place. Be honest about that. If you’ve grown, you’ve grown, and that’s wonderful, but don’t gaslight your consumers by denying their memory of your involvement in that narrative.

Marketing relies upon a certain amount of generalization, sure. Anyone who has ever created a buyer persona is familiar with the efforts involved in researching people as target groups with anticipated shared behaviors and thought patterns. Although there is a distinction to be made between informed generalizations and harmful stereotypes, provocative content drives interaction (all press is good press thinking), so, for some time now, there has existed an unfortunate reward system for taking those generalizations to a harmful, trope-filled place of sadness.

As a marketer, you may find yourself scrambling to remove content that crosses that line into harmful, gender-biased, or culturally-insensitive territory. Let’s look at the numerous marketing blunders that plague each and every Cinco de Mayo as an example.

As a rule, I never recommend using cultural depictions in your marketing materials that are not somehow directly relevant to your business or product. But maybe you impulsively shared a stereotypical GIF to your business page on Facebook to try to boost last-minute sales and now you want it gone. Sombrero cat is cute offensive, right? (no, the answer is no). But what do you do when your audience reacts negatively to the content? Here, again, I want to remind you not to gaslight your audience. Sure, you could just delete the post and hope that few people saw it. But, what if people did see it?


Deleting insensitive content without acknowledging it tells your audience that you recognize that the content was harmful to your brand image  (harmful enough, in fact, to delete it) but not that it was harmful to your audience members (on what was likely a deeply personal level).

If you decide to walk back on culturally-insensitive content by removing it from your platform, I always recommend a quick acknowledgment and apology. Worried about making a ”big deal” out of it? You don’t have to make a big deal out of doing the right thing. Comment the apology on the post itself, wait 10 minutes, delete the post, make a new post with more appropriate content, and add the apology underneath the new post text (Ex. “Our recent Cinco de Mayo post missed the mark’).

And, more importantly, take action when possible. Let your audience know if you’re scheduling a staff sensitivity training (and if you’re sharing culturally-insensitive GIFs, you should) or instituting a multi-tiered approval workflow for content that is not directly related to your product. As I’ve mentioned before, actions speak louder than words, but silence is the loudest message you can send.

The biggest thing to remember when you’re cringing over your mistakes or past participation in insensitive conversations is this: we all have the capacity to grow and improve. Sit in your discomfort. Learn from it. But don’t let the shame swallow you. Correct your mistakes. Be honest. Be sincere. And be better.

We can all be better.