Dentist who killed Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion hires PR firm amid global backlash

Walter Palmer, the now infamous American dentist identified as having killed Cecil the lion during a hunting trip in Zimbabwe, has hired independent US PR firm J Austin & Associates to represent him.

Condemned: Walter Palmer (left) poses with a lion he killed on a previous hunting trip (Credit: Rex Shutterstock)
Condemned: Walter Palmer (left) poses with a lion he killed on a previous hunting trip (Credit: Rex Shutterstock)

A picture of Palmer posing with another lion he had killed on a previous hunting trip was widely circulated in the media yesterday after it emerged that he paid £32,000 to take part in a big game hunt in Zimbabwe.

During the hunt, Cecil, one of Zimbabwe’s most famous lions who was well known to tourists, was killed with a crossbow.

The news has sparked widespread outrage, including among animal rights groups, and #cecilthelion was trending on Twitter this morning with more than 300,000 tweets globally on the subject.

It has also brought global media attention to the usually quiet Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie in Minnesota, where Palmer lives and has his dental practice.

Palmer’s dental practice has abruptly closed and local media said a note on his door at home directed all callers to a PR firm based in Minneapolis, according to the city’s local media.

This PR firm has been confirmed as J Austin & Associates, which was founded in 2006 by Jon Austin, and according to its website "is a full-service communications firm with expertise in crisis and issue management, special situations, transactions and transitions". No other employees are named on the company's website, but according to LinkedIn it has two staff in addition to Austin.

Reports say Zimbabwean authorities have now arrested a professional hunter and the owner of a big game ranch because they did not have the correct licences to hunt lions, and they want to speak to Palmer as well.

A spokesman for Palmer said he regrets killing the much-loved lion and insists he thought he was on a legal hunt and that he relied on professionals to obtain the necessary permits.

Reputation management experts said Palmer’s PR company had to act fast to stop a crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

Emily Dent, PR director at crisis comms agency Rampart PR, said: "In order to salvage and rebuild his reputation, Palmer needs to tackle this head on, apologise and make amends – and if he doesn’t want to sound contrived, he needs to make himself ‘human’. His most effective way of doing this should be through a gesture, such as offering to sponsor the wildlife reserve, or by calling for a debate on the moral issues surrounding hunting and animal welfare."

Simon Maule, director of reputation management firm Linstock Communications, said Palmer had to have "a frank" conversation with his PR firm and decide whether to save his own reputation or his business.

Maule added: "There could be value in speaking directly to his clients in the hope of separating his role as both dentist and game hunter. Similarly, the PR firm needs to work hard to prevent Palmer from becoming the long-term embodiment of hunting."

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