Cecil the Lion must now be the most famous big cat in the world. And the American dentist who killed him in the name of ‘sport’ has rightly been widely condemned. Yet amidst all the media frenzy is an underlying message for PR practitioners and issue managers everywhere, that killing animals – especially photogenic ones – is not only cruel and dumb, but can severely damage reputations and careers, and can also damage associated organisations.
Dr Walter Palmer of Minnesota said he “deeply regretted” the death of Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, but blamed his guides. No mention of reports that the animal had been lured out of its protected area before it was shot. No mention of his previous conviction for killing a bear outside a permitted zone and then dragging its carcass back inside and falsely declaring it was killed there. Is it any wonder his dental practice in River Bluff was temporarily shut down after a barrage of criticism and threats?
Back in 2011, Bob Parsons, billionaire CEO of Internet giant GoDaddy, caused uproar when he posted a video of himself killing an elephant in Zimbabwe. He claimed the local people asked him to kill the animal as it was destroying crops. But his ‘explanation’ would put even Dr Palmer to shame. “When you see me smiling in that picture I’m smiling because I’m pleased no-one was hurt, that the crop was secured and that these people are going to be fed. The type of smile when you get a good report card, or achieve a goal.” Whatever his reason for smiling, a reported 20,000 GoDaddy subscribers cancelled in protest.
Earlier this year another trophy hunter tried to justify killing big animals when Rebecca Francis – winner of the US reality show Extreme Huntress – was called out for a photo of her smiling over the carcass of a bear. She said she shot the animal to provide food for the locals, and claimed she “chose to honour his life” after he was supposedly kicked out of the herd and was close to death. Excuse me. To honour his life? And when did bears roam in herds? Good luck with that!
By contrast, when seven-year-old photos emerged in February of Australian cricket legend Glenn McGrath posing alongside dead big game in Africa, he quickly apologised. “In 2008 I participated in a hunting safari in Zimbabwe that was licensed and legal, but in hindsight highly inappropriate.” Of course that didn’t quell the social media onslaught, with some calling to stop donations to the McGrath Foundation, which supports women with breast cancer.
Then there is Texas vet Kristen Lindsey who posted a picture of herself in April holding a cat she had shot with a bow and arrow alongside the message: “The only good feral tomcat is one with an arrow through its head. Vet of the year award, gladly accepted.” Some hope. She was immediately sacked.
So what has this got to do with issue management? Just ask former patients of the dentist. Or angry subscribers to GoDaddy. Or potential donors to the McGrath Foundation. Or pet-owners at the Texas animal clinic. Or ask Des Hague, CEO of sports catering company Centreplate. Did he kill big game or a feral cat? No, he was captured on video late last year kicking a friend’s dog, and was forced to resign.
For managers and communicators the message should be clear. Animal cruelty is not just a matter of opinion. It’s a potent issue which can cause major damage to individuals and organisations.