When a crisis hits, an organisation will often call a public relations or crisis management consultancy to act on their behalf. These consultancies will advise clients on how to handle the media, what to say and not to say, and how to present themselves in a more sympathetic light in order to protect their reputation.
Unfortunately, for some clients their reputation is so damaged that even crisis management firms will think twice before accepting their custom.
Last week Walther Palmer, an American dentist, on a ‘big game holiday’ in Zimbabwe caused worldwide outrage when a photograph emerged showing him smiling standing over a dead lion. It transpired that the dentist had paid $50,000.00 for the chance to kill a lion, and had tracked him for over 40 hours before skinning him and taking his head. What’s more, the lion in question was none other than Cecil, the star attraction at the Hwange National Park, meaning he was protected and very much off the menu for poachers.
Media commentators lined up to condemn the actions and social media exploded with suggestions as to what people would like to do should they ever meet Palmer in person.
In response to the media onslaught, Palmer hired a public relations firm to handle media enquiries and deal with the hundreds of phone calls that were by now coming into his surgery. Unfortunately for Palmer, by this point he had become so widely known that the very action of hiring a public relations was, in itself, seen as a major public relations disaster, and provided the story with further momentum.
The PR Firm at the centre of the story, J. Austin & Associates, realising that it had now become the story quickly distanced itself from Palmer putting out a Tweet saying that it had, ‘ended our work on the issue’’. A second PR firm also based in Minneapolis also put out a Tweet that they too did not represent Walther Palmer either. Both agencies realised that continuing their association with the story threatened their own reputations, and very publicly distanced themselves from the issue to avoid any further damage.
Whilst very few of us will ever find ourselves in this situation, or indeed want to kill a lion, there is a key lesson that can be drawn from the episode: reputation management should be undertaken long before a crisis hits, because once you find yourself in the firing line, very few people will want to join you.
Incidentally, before anyone asks, we are not representing Mr Palmer either.