I feel that we can’t let this week’s bulletin go by without commenting on the death of Cecil the lion, which has dominated the news and the social media this week. The story so far is that rich, white, American dentist (not usually a combination which evokes public sympathy), Dr Palmer, pays $50,000 to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe as part of a seemingly legal shooting trip. Unfortunately for him, he shoots Cecil, a well-known favourite with the tourists and a GPS tagged lion. The shooting is picked up on social media and goes viral with people picketing his house, issuing death threats on social media and even the British Prime Minister was asked to comment on the shooting. Dr Palmer has gone into hiding and presumably will not reappear until he feels this has blown over, and the social media is focused on a new event.
So what can we learn from this event. I suppose the easiest one is not to cause the event in the first place. Shooting lions and other large African animals used to be fashionable and ‘manly’ about a hundred years ago. For most people, big game hunting is at the very least an anachronism, and at worst, as we have seen in this case, it causes moral outrage. If you have a sport or activity, which many people would consider morally wrong, don’t post it on social media and keep your pictures to yourself.
When I said I was going to be writing this article my wife commented on people’s attitude to animals. Often people are much more outraged by bad treatment of animals than the death of humans. I think this is especially amplified if the animal has a name. In the same week as the Cecil shooting, a refugee boat in the Mediterranean capsized leading to multiple deaths, but there is much less moral outrage than the shooting of a lion. The lesson here is if your incident involves harm to animals, especially iconic and much loved animals such as lions, then the effect of the incident is going to be greatly amplified.
The social media has been full of people venting and condemning the actions of Dr Palmer, and this has varied from death threats to moral outrage. Hashtags such as #catlivesmatter, #walterpalmer and #cecilthelion have been used to galvanise people and ensure that the outrage continues to build. As we know, social media has given people a platform to express their feelings on an issue which doesn’t really affect them, but feel they need to comment on. Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and author of ‘The Psychodynamics of Social Networking’ explains that venting online is an easy and anonymous way to feel good about yourself. “It’s so easy to be abusive online because it is just a matter of a few clicks on a keyboard and the ‘enter’ key. An individual gets the bad feeling off their chest without considering that there is another human being, somewhere, on the other side of that tweet.”
There is not a lot an organisation can do in response to this sort of anger. Perhaps a fuller apology might have helped, although Dr Palmer did release a statement saying “Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally, resulted in the taking of this lion”. I think in this case, people on social media were not listening to reasoned argument and so there was no media response except for waiting for the event to ‘blow over’.
A number of celebrities have made their opinions known on the event, and I believe this has further fuelled the sense of outrage. A single tweet by Ricky Gervais commenting on Cecil’s death was retweeted 40,000 times. The late-night talk-show host, Jimmy Kimmel, talked very emotionally about the death on his show, adding again to the outrage and keeping the death in the public view. If your event is commented on by celebrities then you can be assured it will be further amplified.
The fallout of this event has been felt beyond Dr Palmer. Yell.com are constantly having to take down abusive comments posted on Dr Palmer’s dentist site, on their pages. Two PR/Crisis Management firms hired by Dr Palmer to represent him, found themselves caught up in the abuse, and very quickly dropped their client and distanced themselves.
If you’re not on twitter there is nothing stopping someone tweeting on your behalf. Twitter account ‘River Bluff Dental’ was set up as a spoof site to mock Dr Palmer. I think this could be dangerous for organisations that are not on social media. At best someone is going to write spoof articles on your behalf, and at worst people believe the articles are from your organisation, further acerbating the incident. Even if you don’t use social media normally, you should be prepared to use it during a crisis and should register the most relevant social media sites for your organisation.
I thought I would give the last word to a local who lives close to the site where Cecil was killed. “In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror”.
I suspect lions are now objects of terror to Dr Palmer as well.