The Cecil the Lion incident has captivated the world. Cecil was a 13-year-old male lion who lived in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. Cecil was a major attraction and crowd favorite. Walter Palmer, an American dentist and recreational big-game hunter, shot and killed Cecil on July 1st this year. The killing drew international media attention and heavy negative internet attention against Palmer.
While most of the dialogue centers around the animal cruelty implications of this unfortunate incident, any company - especially a startup - can also use Cecil’s death as a lesson in crisis management. Looking at this incident from a business perspective, companies can identify six ways to approach a crisis in order to minimize damage and negative exposure.
Fix the Damage, Avoid the Scars
Even the largest legal concerns may pale in comparison to the damage done to a company’s reputation during a crisis. Of course, Palmer's criminal investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and pending extradition by Zimbabwean officials are not small matters. However, becoming the most hated man on the Internet in is probably Palmer’s biggest long-term problem, and will follow him for life.
Being able to triage during a crisis is an important skill. Your company will likely have very limited time during a crisis situation. Deal with the most important issues as soon as you objectively assess risks. It is a good idea to involve counsel in considering and drafting a response. Protect the privileged communications. Label all documents carefully to ensure protection.
Track the Costs of a Crisis
A crisis may impact a company’s bottom line. It is likely that Palmer’s legal, PR, and travel expenses have been high and his ability to practice dentistry and attract clients has diminished.
In a crisis, carefully consider what you say publicly to avoid admitting anything that could worsen the crisis. Communicating prudently can greatly minimize the duration and effect of a crisis on your bottom line Also keep in mind that crises change constantly and may require rapid, continuous response. Stay on top of your situation to protect your bottom line.
Amplified Messaging with Social Media
Internet and social media are vital in influencing public opinion and may compel public officials to act more swiftly. It is clear that the United States and Zimbabwe governments were influenced to act on the Cecil the Lion incident by the public outcry against Palmer on the Internet, especially on Facebook.
In all your communications, especially during a crisis, keep in mind that email and social media are forever. Using the Internet as an outlet to express frustration is a bad idea.
Everything will be Scrutinized
A company’s actions before, during, and after a crisis will be scrutinized and sensationalized. Numerous details of Mr. Palmer's visit to Zimbabwe, such as his assertion that he was reliant on the park's guides, have surfaced during the investigation and the ensuing outrage.
It is important to match communication with action. The world is watching your response, so cracking under the pressure is not an option.
Speak the Truth
The media will write many versions of the truth about the crisis, often with multiple “follow-ups.” For example, many conflicting versions of Cecil the Lion’s death have circulated on social media. Somehow, even the possible death of Cecil’s lion brother emerged as a leading story.
If you must speak out during a crises, speak quickly and stick to the facts. Always speak to the concerns and needs of potential victims in the crisis, and maintain one voice. Empathy and sympathy often go a long way.
Keep Your Business Clean
Your or your company’s dirty laundry will likely surface as “fair game” during a crisis. For example, Palmer’s past brash attitude toward poaching and illegal hunting laws surfaced soon after the incident.
Carefully select your messengers during a crisis, especially if you can’t afford guidance from public relations experts, legal counsel, and other professionals.
“Spin” is no longer acceptable; the media will not give you the benefit of the doubt. Assume that all facts, especially negative ones, will surface during a crisis. If what you or your messengers say seems misleading, it may negatively impact your appearance to jurors, regulators, lawmakers and the public. Act with great care during a crisis, understanding how your actions will be perceived, and stay strong (and honest) during the storm. Once the storm blows over, you'll have the chance to redeem your business and reputation, and even turn over a new leaf.