The conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas these past weeks has lifted the lid on animosities and biases long thought dead in the West following the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945.

A ramp up of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Islamism—the emergence of new categories: Judeophobia, Islamophobia—and the weirdest of all—Likudism (referring to the right-wing political party currently holding the balance of power in the Israeli parliament and a none too hidden wordplay on “Nazism”) have violently stormed our TVs, our reading material, and our streets.

A few days ago they hit a business empire too, in Australia of all places, as a once vaunted PR machine failed when it came to managing its online interactions.

Dateline—Saturday July 26, 2014

Plastic-wrapped rolls of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper thumped on pavements across Australia’s most liberal city. Online, its sibling The Age newspaper lit up computer screens in Melbourne to the south.

These were the flagship journals of the Fairfax Media Empire, and in them sat a column with a foreboding headline:

Israel’s rank and rotten fruit is being called fascism

It was an opinion piece, crafted by Australian journalist Mike Carlton. Yet, if not for a cartoon that accompanied it, readers might have lounged unaware.

That cartoon’s message was blatant though. The work of Australian-based illustrator of New Yorker magazine fame Glen Le Lievre, it conjured up days of a 1930s Third Reich propaganda rag, Der Sturmer. The caricature with its stereotypically Jewish nose started passions rolling.

And a PR nightmare was just beginning to hit the fan.Fairfax Cartoon

Carlton’s article led off with a descriptive scene from the streets: “The images from Gaza are searing, a gallery of death and horror.” It continued with an account of the reported injury toll; it spoke of destruction, occupation, and of a former Australian Prime Minister who’d labeled Israel’s combat stance a “war crime” (this same PM had recently called for an end to the US-Australian alliance but I’ll leave that for another day).

It admitted: “Yes, Hamas is also trying to kill Israeli civilians, with a barrage of rockets and guerilla border attacks. It, too, is guilty of terror and grave war crimes.”

Personally, I saw nothing scandalous in the piece. Indeed it was impassioned. But as a writer of opinion too, I’m a fervent believer in free speech—to the extent that it never amounts to vilification or defamation. For so long as a person who vehemently disagrees with me is allowed to say such, I possess the right of reply.

There certainly were things technically wrong with the article. Its geo-political analysis was lightweight, its military insight missing, and its knowledge of law pertaining to international conflict confused.

All of these deficiencies were very surprising, considering that 68-year old Carlton, a long-standing journalist, had earned his stripes in the war-ravaged jungles of Vietnam. But then there was that cartoon.

And something else happened.

From the get go, readers bombarded Carlton in protest using Fairfax-supplied email addresses and Twitter feeds. They inundated the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald with caricature-driven ire.

Eventually, Carlton erupted.

Through Tweets and email replies he began telling critics to “f#ck off.” He used the phrase, “Jewish bigot” once.

What Carlton forgot in all this, was that these critics were the customers of Fairfax’s newspapers.

They weren’t his to respond to at all.

Dateline – Monday August 4, 2014

With complaints unabated, including allegations by the Australian attorney general George Brandis of anti-Semitic vilification, and disgust voiced by federal communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Sydney Morning Herald launched a full editorial apology:

There has been widespread reader and community reaction during the past 10 days over a cartoon that was used to illustrate an opinion piece by columnist Mike Carlton on the conflict in Gaza. … A strong view was expressed that the cartoon, by Glen Le Lievre, closely resembled illustrations that had circulated in Nazi Germany. These are menacing cartoons that continue to haunt and traumatise generations of Jewish people. … The Herald now appreciates that, in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment. It was wrong to publish the cartoon in its original form.

Two days later, Mike Carlton resigned.

In an interview with Australia’s Nine News Network, he said:

And then I got a call later at night from someone higher up the Fairfax food chain just stating quite blandly “we are going to suspend you for four to six weeks to consider” … at that point I interrupted and said “don’t go to any trouble, I’ve resigned” and hung up.

Fairfax’s director of news and business media Sean Aylmer was more forthcoming. He prefaced a second apology by the paper:

[The column] attracted a lot of criticism. Many readers wrote to Mike—what got him into trouble was the way he responded to those readers.

Indeed, as Fairfax’s largest competitor News Corp reported in its Australian newspaper:

Several employees expressed concern to Aylmer that this was not appropriate behaviour for a senior columnist. It would not be acceptable for any other Fairfax journalist and Carlton’s behaviour was damaging The Sydney Morning Herald’s brand.

And there lies the rub.

The PR dangers of online customer interaction

The PR nightmare that Fairfax finds itself in at present is not one purely of an editorial making —though the company rightly admits some terrible lapses in editorial judgment.

Its basis rests in giving employees and contractors unrestricted access to its online customers. Doing so can effectively kill a brand.

I’ve never understood why publishers provide authors, writers, and journalists with public email and Twitter accounts, and then encourage them “to go and mix it up”.

Brands are delicate entities: they require nurturing, polishing, defending, and closely managed airing. Why would any business deregulate the way its lifeblood is promoted?

Giving a columnist free reign with irate readers, is akin to putting your customer service in the hands of overseas telemarketing centers whose operators can barely string a coherent fact-finding session together.

Yet, everyday, businesses are doing just that.

And the printing presses at Fairfax are now spluttering: with both Jewish and Muslim community groups threatening a boycott.

How this all could have been avoided

As a customer, I recently came across a similar situation. A business gave one of its employees (a contractor actually) free rein online in talking about one of its products.

The contractor went so far during one of our interactions, to pass beyond the boundaries of rudeness. This business I had once adored now sits tarnished in my mind—and with it threatens the loss of my revenue stream.

But this emphasizes some Golden Rules when it comes to marketing:

  • Unhappy customers will privately tell 8-20 others of their complaint.
  • Unhappy customers will publicly tell an unlimited number of others via social media.
  • For every unhappy customer who lets you (the business) know, 26 others will ensure you’ll be the last to find out.

Back to Fairfax: how many of its readers might jump ship given a few hundred complaints caused by Mike Carlton’s actions? The multiplier effect here is astonishing—and it sets the parameters for what’s at stake online.

We’ve all seen policies lumped on employees regarding the use of social media in their private time. Typical of these goes:

Don’t talk on behalf of the company especially to the media without explicit permission. It will be grounds for dismissal.

But what happens when explicit permission has been granted, as was the case with Mike Carlton? Here the answer is quite simple: don’t release it lightly.

It’s great in general to leverage the power of social media these days and hope for a more interactive client engagement. But that optimum concept remains the realm of theory.

The threat of criminal and civil action is too great not to take firm control of your business’s communications. And competition is so tight these days, that brand protection is the difference in keeping your business’s doors open.

What a business needs least is a team member running rogue with customer interactions. You do not want to grant carte blanche access—ever. Just as it’s crazy to outsource your online social media feeds to anyone not directly employed and overseen by your management.

There is a photo of Israelis watching the bombardment of Gaza from a hilltop across the border. It purportedly inspired the cartoon used by the Sydney Morning Herald and was Tweeted by Le Lievre after complaints started flooding in.

Fairfax TwitterLook closely. There’s no remote control in anyone’s hand. No celebration. In fact, without a follow-up interview, nothing about the onlookers’ perceptions can be gauged.

So you add a crooked nose, a Star of David on the seat-back and anyone could have guessed that a multifaceted PR nightmare was in the making.

All it required was an unregulated voice to topple the Jenga. And former Fairfax journalist Mike Carlton (whose son-in-law is Jewish) supplied it. The real question therefore, is straightforward in scope:

Why was he ever left alone to use it?

© 2014 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Cartoon credit: © 2014 Fairfax Media (via www.haaretz.com)