Getting ripped by the court of public opinion


In this social media age, public opinion is all around us, rattling in our ears and sometimes forcing us to have a view on something we would otherwise blissfully ignore.

In recent years we’ve witnessed how potent a rant on Twitter can be. When coming from the halls of power it can put a rocket or a bomb under stock markets, or possibly even talk up the prospects of war.

When coming from the proletariat, the power can be just as potent. Setting aside the poor English often found in the typical social media rant, a single opinion from the ‘average punter’ can easily generate a tidal wave of emotions, especially if it has company. Outrage rarely drinks alone.

Radio shock jock Alan Jones is no shrinking violet when it comes to riding out a healthy backlash. The latest furore when Jones suggested Prime Minister Scott Morrison should place an item of foot apparel down the NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s throat went a lot further than he could have imagined.

Despite admitting to the awkwardness of his comment and arguing that he simply meant Morrison should tell Ardern to ‘put a sock in it’ when it came to her lecturing Australia about its climate change responsibilities, the damage had already been done.

The court of public opinion was so vocal in arguing the comments were misogynistic and inappropriate, it led to commercial consequences for Jones’ radio station 2GB with a number of advertisers pulling out of the show.

Filtered comments are never part of the brief of being a shock jock, so Jones is taking it on the chin. He has survived many storms like this in the past, although his employer is no doubt still feeling the effects.

Any business worried about hurting its brand should understand the implications of a loose approach to social media management. The problem is more infuriating when dumb mistakes are made by people who should know better. It’s worse when an employee unexpectedly pulls you into the quagmire.

Channel 7 personality Edwina Bartholomew may have learned a valuable lesson in filtering when she responded to a tweet from Seb Costello, a Channel Nine reporter and son of one-time Treasurer Peter Costello.

He was reporting on a security threat at Parliament House in Melbourne where a man had threatened to set alight a vehicle containing flammable liquid parked outside the building.

Bartholomew commented: “Surprisingly articulate for a (censored).” The censored word could not be revealed for legal reasons and remains subject to speculation, which made matters worse.

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Channel Nine threatened legal action over the ‘personal attack’ because of its ‘devastating’ impact on the journalist. Channel Seven sources downplayed the issue by suggesting legal action was doubtful.

Although Bartholomew, who was on assignment in London when she published the tweet, took down the post some 50 minutes later, there was no going back from this.

Her response that she was ‘half asleep on the other side of the world’ hasn’t washed with Nine, nor has her apology to Seb Costello and an assurance that ‘no offence was intended’.

Public opinion decrying the tweet generally centred on Bartholomew’s failure to take ownership of the words rather than an admission that it was an ‘errant’ comment. And that sums up the biggest step towards turning around negative public opinion, namely the courage to accept responsibility before explaining your actions.

If social media has shown us, you don’t have to be a high-profile television or radio star to fall foul of public opinion. We see it every day on social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Instagram.

Influencers trying to outdo each other performing dangerous stunts have been shamed by followers for potentially risking the lives of wannabe copy-cats. For some, it’s a calculated risk because they may grab the money shot that bolsters their following and their brand.

Then there are the dumb, unfiltered posts like the German couple who begged for money from their followers so they could continue sharing their global sojourn with them on social media.

A severe public backlash led them to close their Instagram account, but only after the story hit the mainstream media. This was a classic example of how wrapped up influencers can be in their public persona and how tone deaf their postings can become.

There’s a fine art to managing public opinion, and usually that starts with keeping faith with your following. The last thing any brand needs is a post that is easily misunderstood or just plain dumb enough that the court of public opinion eagerly chews you out.

There’s a fine line between being entertaining and being offensive. It’s just a matter of calibrating your filter to stay on the right side of that line.