Social Media and the Court of Public Opinion
Kevin Myers, a seasoned columnist known for his provocative views wrote a column in this weekend’s Sunday Times which was offensive to people of the Jewish faith and to many women. What is particularly interesting is that it appears that it was the storm on social media which resulted in action being taken and apologies being issued by the newspapers editors in London and Dublin.
This was the Court of Public Opinion at its most powerful. A power that has been increased significantly thanks to the immediacy of social media. Prior to the advent of twitter, it would have taken days or even weeks to yield such a result. The relationship between reader and journalist has never been more intimate and social media has given ordinary people a means to express an immediate opinion on something they see on TV, read in newspapers / magazines or listen to on radio.
What is particularly interesting about the Kevin Myers column, is that just a few years ago, this would have been localised to Ireland. But concern about its content was first raised in the UK where the article appeared online – it did not appear in the UK print edition of the newspaper. First Twitter, then the Irish and UK media, and even reaching as far as the New Statesman and the New York Times, shows the smallness of our world, thanks to technology. Chelsea Clinton, JK Rowling and Jeremy Corbyn waded into the debate, which has focused on his anti-semitic remarks.
The Sunday Times is not the first to have published controversial content from the journalist. Eight years ago, the Irish Independent published a Holocaust denying article from Mr Myers, which it only removed from its online site yesterday; while the Irish Times has been referencing a previous apology from then editor Geraldine Kennedy relating to a column by Kevin Myers and published in the newspaper in 2005 referring to children of single mothers as ‘bastards’.
From a crisis PR perspective the Sunday Times acted promptly to minimise reputational impact. It admitted the mistake, apologised and took action. Removing the article online has not stopped it from being photographed and shared on social media and the controversy will be published in search results online for years to come. Has it done enough? Time will tell – and the debate is likely to rage for some days to come. Whether it will have any lasting impact on sales of the newspaper has yet to be seen, but for now the Sunday Times must minimise any contagion to sister newspapers and continue to be seen to be acting proactively and responsibly to the current crisis.
From a general PR perspective, the incident has once again shown the impact of social media on brands(positive and negative) and the power it gives to the general public. It is an important reminder of the speed with which a reputational crisis can emerge and the fact that they don’t happen between 9.00am and 5.00pm Monday – Friday. Those companies that have a crisis team in place and senior management ready to respond generally emerge with least reputational impact than those that allow the issue to fester and are slow to respond.
On a separate note, while anger has been justifiably focused on the anti-semitic remarks contained in the column, it was also offensive to working women everywhere suggesting as it did that women deserved to be paid less than men. Mr Myers column was written about the gender pay gap at the BBC – an issue which was brought to the fore in Ireland by Sharon Ni Bheolain and Martina Fitzgerald, among others, in RTÉ. Research into the Gender Pay Gap in Ireland carried out by Irish owned professional recruitment company Morgan McKinley (MKC Client) in November 2016, in collaboration with salary benchmarking specialist Emolument.com, found that the average earnings gap in Ireland in 2016 stood at 20%. On average, men working in professional jobs earned €12,500 more than women when bonus and salary were taken into account. When the two are split, the average salary gap stood at 16% while the bonus gap goes up as high as 50%. What is most worrying is that the gender pay gap exists from the minute undergraduates enter the workforce and increases with the education level attained. The research found a pay gap of 10% for employees holding a BSc Degree. There is no reasonable explanation for any pay gap at graduate level. Experience certainly cannot be an excuse, and nor can the level of degree, given that women generally perform better in university than men and in many countries more women than men are now entering university.
It is to be hoped that a rational debate on the gender pay gap will continue and ensure that in the future our daughters and sons are asking ‘what was the gender pay gap’ in the same way women of my generation ask ‘what was the marriage bar’? of our mothers.