Cablegate Chronicles: MasterCard's 'Lonely Planet' Problem

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A 'Lonely Planet' blurb about Turkey's ethnic groups causes a public relations scandal for MasterCard.

DATE: JUNE 1, 2005

After briefly basking in the reflected glow of last week's exciting UEFA Champion's League Final in Istanbul between Milan and Liverpool, corporate sponsor Mastercard has found itself dealing with a public relations nightmare in recent days following public criticism of inclusion in its match city guide of critical commentary about both Turkey and its revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The offending passages, first publicized in the liberal Islamist daily "Zaman," addressed the issue of Turkish-Kurdish relations and the Armenian tragedy of 1915. Mastercard briefly closed its office following death threats against its General Manager, and has since officially apologized, noting that the offending material had not been reviewed by any company officials, but instead emanated from the "Lonely Planet," which produced the bulk of the publication. The public reaction, which has also included calls for a boycott of the company by Turkish NGO's and the threat of public prosecution from the Istanbul Governor, highlights once again how close to the surface core nationalist reflexes and taboos are in the post-December 17th environment.

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Shortlived Honeymoon: Mastercard officials, whose biggest problem last week was the deluge of calls they were receiving seeking tickets to the May 25th Milan-Liverpool match, faced a more serious crisis on May 30 when "Zaman" newspaper published extracts from the city guide the company distributed to its VIP guests and journalists. In the "Lonely Planet" produced publication, which was written by an Istanbul-based British journalist, brief reference was made to the issue of minorities in Turkey, with sections covering both the Kurds and the Armenians. The breezy narrative noted that "Ataturk banned any expression of Kurdishness in an attempt at assimilation," adding that major battles and atrocities followed in the 1920s and 1930s, with the deaths of more than 30,000 coming since 1984. On the equally sensitive Armenian issue, the guide noted that while most Armenians had remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire, some had rebelled, engaging in terrorism that set off a powerful anti-Armenian backlash and the "widespread massacre of innocent Armenians in Istanbul and elsewhere."

Harsh Reaction: The publication sparked harsh reaction from most quarters, with Istanbul Governor Guler denouncing the "insult" to Turkey and warning that "such a sponsorship firm needs to be more cautious." He added that officials would investigate the publication and determine if it constituted a criminal offense. NGO's were also quick to leap on the bandwagon, with the Consumers' Union calling for a boycott of the company if it did not officially apologize. Turkish sports officials also expressed disappointment with the publication. More worryingly, anonymous callers phoned in death threats, and nationalist groups indicated that they would organize protests, resulting in closure of Mastercard's office early this week and the provision of extra security for General Manager Ozlem Imece.

¶4. (C) Damage Control: Since the story broke on May 30, Mastercard has been engaged in damage control. In an initial announcement on May 30, the company admitted its mistake and noted it had contacted the "Lonely Planet" to demand the removal of "erroneous information" from the guide. When this did not quell the furor, the company went further a day later and officially apologized. In a public statement, General Manager Imece observed that she had not known of some of the material that was to be included in the publication, and was "deeply shocked" by it. Privately she has told us that the company was blind-sided by the furor, having been focused on security for their VIP guests last week. This, she said, was something that "no one expected."