Cecil the lion's killer: A PR brief too hot to handle?

J Austin & Associates was catapulted to worldwide attention after taking on American dentist Walter Palmer as a client to help him deal with the backlash for killing Cecil the lion during a hunting trip.

Describing itself as a full-service comms firm specialising in "crisis and issue management, special situations, transactions and transitions", the agency appeared to be the perfect fit to take on this case.

The question is, should J Austin & Associates or any other agency have taken on this client?

According to PR professionals, the answer is a resounding no. Since news broke, PRWeek has been inundated with comments. The PR community has been in universal agreement that this crosses an ethical line, and many believe no amount of PR can fix the damage caused by Palmer's own actions. In, a survey of US readers of PRWeek nearly 90 per cent said they would not touch Palmer.

Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA 

"Speaking professionally, Mr Palmer has a right to have his side of the argument put forward in as professional a manner as possible. Every agency taking such a brief needs to weigh the financial reward against the reaction of potential future clients, and I trust that they have done so. 

"Speaking personally, Mr Palmer is simply wasting his money. He deserves all of the public opprobrium he’s received so far and will receive in the future. He’d be better off just crawling away under his dentist’s chair, and waiting for the world to tire of him and his pathetic interest in killing creatures much more worthy than he is himself."
Heather Logrippo, owner of Expose Yourself Public Relations

"Here's our suggestion to Dr. Palmer:

Apologise. Let the world know that in Minneapolis, perhaps sport hunting is readily accepted, but clearly the rest of the world takes issue with it and as a result of the public outcry you had time to re-evaluate the moral and ethical impact of this barbaric sport. As a result, you would like to match any donation, up to $100,000, to donate to the Hwange National Park in order to arrange for the care and safety of Cecil's now orphaned cubs. We suggest you fall on your own bow and arrow and try to do some good in the wake of the destruction you've caused."

Comments have also come through the PRWeek Facebook page:

Matt Mendolera-Schamann, account director at Matter Communications

"I think there are some smart ways to deal with this via PR, but take issue with the suggestion in the story that donating to the reserve would be seen as a good move. All it would do is fan the flames and prove he doesn't care – he has plenty of money."
Laurie Moon, senior public relations and marketing comms specialist

"I don't think any tactical movements – even donating to the reserve – could save his reputation at this point. Even admitting he knowingly (illegally) took the life of this animal wouldn't help. 

"This is a poor business move on behalf of the PR firm that chose to take this case. Did it not consider what its other clients' positions may be, first? I can't imagine this ends well for the PR firm, either."
Diego Loyola, project leader at Siemens

"How can he be helped? It's not his first time, so many pictures boasting of killing animals. Take a year's vacation, close shop and start new somewhere else."
Jennifer Clair Robson, writer at Sparkle Communications

"Shame on Austin & Associates. Shame on them."
Melanie C. Torres Canto, research, social media and new business development specialist at Corporate Graphics and Envelope Mfg.

"The PR firm has poor ethical judgement. I guess everyone's money is green. It is quite a challenge though."

No doubt sensing the negative attention, Jon Austin, the owner of the firm, said that it had ended its relationship with Palmer after 24 hours.

"Yesterday a colleague at another firm asked me to assist in distributing Dr Palmer’s statement to the global media," Austin told PRWeek.

It is unclear whether Palmer currently has another agency helping him, and even if he does no one is likely to confess. The backlash has already had a detrimental impact on his professional life. His dental practice is closed for the foreseeable future and people have been flocking to Palmer's Yelp page to leave unflattering reviews of him and comments about Cecil the lion.

However, due to the nature of Palmer's actions, no one apart from other hunting enthusiasts are sympathising with him. Palmer could yet face legal action, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Justice set to investigate whether he broke any endangered species laws. What is clear is that the repercussions for his involvement in the killing of Cecil the lion are likely to follow him for the rest of his life.

Hamish Thomson, managing director at Houston PR, puts it best when he says the reputation Palmer had is finished.

"There is no other way back from this. No one is ever going to say 'that dentist hunter guy that lured the lion with the cute name off the reserve and gave it a slow and agonising death had a point'. That will never happen – or only in scary gun shops," he told PRWeek.

"The only way forward is heartfelt reinvention and the only even vaguely subtle choice is whether to pursue redemption publicly or altruistically."

Here in the UK, the incident has caught the attention of news outlets, all of which are competing to find exclusives from the £130m-a-year hunting industry in Africa. The Daily Mirror has uncovered that British firms such as Settler Safaris offer to take tourists on all-inclusive hunting trips, where they can kill lions starting at £14,000.

As more information continues to be revealed, Palmer is unlikely to be the only person whose reputation is forever changed by his actions.

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