What power social media is proving to have. Not content with the pivotal role it played in the Arab Spring, now it has Sydney 2GB radio host Alan Jones in its grip. The outrage on Twitter and Facebook (at press time there were nearly 20,000 “likes” on a Facebook page devoted to sacking Alan Jones) follows his comments to a Young Liberal dinner where he stated that Julia Gillard’s recently deceased father had died of shame. It was a terrible comment, particularly as it was clear how much the Prime Minister was grieving the death of her father. Since then legions of social media participants – encouraged by campaigning website change.org – have pressured major companies, including Challenger and Freedom Furniture to withdraw their advertising from the station. At press time, 2GB had pulled all advertising from the show in the hope of calming the situation.
No one should be surprised by the vileness of Jones’s words; his role is to test the boundaries of public taste. Right-wing shock jocks aren’t a new phenomena and in a pluralistic democracy there has to be a place for them. While some may see Jones as a right-wing demagogue, he has the biggest share (18.5 per cent) of the breakfast radio market in Sydney. He has supporters. The same goes for Kyle Sandilands, a breakfast show host on 2Day FM also known for his nasty remarks – and a 10 per cent share of the breakfast market.
The issue for businesses is what marketing policy should be in place in an environment where the comments of a radio commentator can contaminate their image and plaster their Facebook page with angry comments. In the past, a comment that went too far might evoke public reaction but there was no real platform for public reaction. Companies could continue to advertise with controversial figures and send out a bland statement to note that they didn’t necessarily agree with what they said. Now, however, social media makes it too public to ignore – companies are like anyone else, they live in fear of being “de-friended” on Facebook.
This means companies must take a closer look at which brands they associate with. Jones’s comments may have been distasteful but they were hardly out of character. If advertisers are appalled by his comments on Gillard’s family, what was their reaction to his racist remarks in 2005 when he referred to Lebanese Muslims as “Middle Eastern grubs”? Pulling support from his show is a reasonable reaction to his most recent remarks, having a long-term and thoughtful approach to where a brand is exposed is better. And this works both ways. The 150,000 listeners to Jones every morning vote and shop, they have a right to their viewpoint and if a company thinks they are important, they should stick with them. But social media will make it harder for companies to chop and change according to circumstance.
But don’t for one minute believe that social media has covered itself in glory with this campaign. There is something fevered and false about the way social media foments a cause. Each social media campaign has one thing in common – they are ephemeral, gathering together a group of voices who claim to care deeply about an issue for a few days. Alan Jones is vile but the rule of the mob is no more to be condoned than the ugly words of one man.