Top Publicists Weigh In on Cecil the Lion's Killer

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In the latest Public Relations Emergency Room, The Hollywood Reporter assembles a panel of experts to grade the media strategies behind the headlines.

Whether it’s good news or bad news, there’s a right way and wrong way to handle it. In this new recurring feature, The Hollywood Reporter assembles an expert panel of top industry publicists to weigh in on the rollout (or fallout!) behind the biggest headlines du jour. We call it: PR ER.

This week’s topic: Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.

On Tuesday, Palmer issued a statement saying that he "relied on the expertise of my local professional guides" and expressing regret that his "pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion." Satisfied?

Allan Mayer, 42West principal partner and head of strategic communications: When you talk about how much you love killing creatures, it doesn’t really help your situation much. To say, "I love doing this," to a lot of people, is like saying, "I love going out and pulling the arms and legs off babies." One of the first rules of crisis PR is: Understand who you’re speaking to. In this case it was particularly egregious, but it’s a mistake people make all the time, where they assume the audience shares their prejudices. They don’t even recognize their prejudices as prejudices.

Nicole Wool, Jones Social PR CEO: He essentially laid the entire blame on the guides. This is an experienced hunter and obviously very knowledgeable about what he was doing. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong here. You have a big game hunter who has a history of killing animals for fun and sport, and has paid a huge sum to do it, which is disturbing. He has a history of giving false information to the authorities about his hunting practices, which creates a huge credibility issue for him. He has taken no responsibility for his role other than this single written statement, and now he’s gone into hiding.

Howard Bragman, Fifteen Minutes PR chairman and founder: "He was a victim, he didn’t know, he thought he was doing it legally." He doesn’t understand that it doesn’t matter whether it’s illegal or not. To kill some beautiful animal and hang it on your wall doesn’t resonate the same with most people anymore. The letter he sent out to his patients I thought was okay. The tone was right.

So should he try another statement? Is there anything he can do to redeem himself?

Bragman: No. Shut up, shut up, shut up. He did the smart thing for him, which is disappearing.

Wool: He needs to immediately come forward, make himself fully available to the officials here and abroad, and face the press and the public. They really need to see and hear real emotion and remorse from him. He should convey how incredibly heartbroken he is for what occurred and take full responsibility for his role. He needs to communicate that he is unequivocally cooperating with the investigation. It’s really important that he lays out a very identifiable plan as to how he will try to make amends. It’s an irreversible wrong, but at the very least he should make a substantial donation to animal conservation. Obviously, no more hunting.

Mayer: If he really is a lifelong committed hunter who doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong except allow himself to be misled by his guides, then there’s nothing you can do for him. It’s probably best to lay low and let the news cycle pass. If he’s suddenly struck by a revelation on the road to Damascus and decides, "what I’ve been doing is wrong and I’m never gonna do it again," then call up Matt Lauer and go on the Today show.

Wool: I assumed that he must feel bad, but based on his behavior, it doesn’t sound like he really does. If people don’t believe that he’s truly sorry, then he’s going to create more problems for himself. He doesn’t seem to understand the public outrage. So maybe something along the lines of trying to understand what is wrong with this practice.

Mayer: The most you can do is address the criminal issue and concentrate on making the case that he was misled and would never have done something like this if he knew. And the notion that you can spend $50,000 for some exotic animal to be lured in front of your crossbow so you can shoot at it like you’re playing a video game — that disturbs a lot of people. That’s not hunting as a lot of people would define hunting. That becomes as much a class issue as it is a cultural issue. I would urge him to try to defuse that part of it. Talk about the skill involved, and try to defuse the notion that you’re some sort of effete rich guy who’s going into the bush with five-star cuisine and guides who will drive the animal into your sights, which apparently is in fact what happened. That makes it reprehensible, not just unfortunate. So maybe it’s the goal of a crisis PR person in that situation to try to dial it back from a reprehensible situation to an unfortunate one. But if the facts that I’ve read are accurate, he deserves all the opprobrium that’s raining down on him.

Is there any way he might actually garner sympathy because of all the hate and backlash he’s received?

Mayer: If it hasn’t started, it’s going to start any minute. There will be a groundswell of support for him from hunting groups, the National Rifle Association, Fox News and others who will think, "This is the crazy PETA animal activists," because everything gets filtered through that kind of dichotomy. It just reinforces the unfortunate polarization of our culture. Like everything else, it will become a Red State/Blue State thing. You double down on your beliefs, and say, "Well, screw it, I don’t really care what the Blue State folks say, I live in the Red State with all my Red State friends."

Wool: We live in a world where people engender support no matter what kind of activity they are involved with. If he hopes to do that, then he has to come forward. It’s tough to get anybody to be sympathetic unless they can see that he’s really been genuinely impacted by this. He’s not humanized right now. All we have is photos — and some really disturbing ones of him with dead animals.

Bragman: No. Other than from Ted Nugent.

Palmer reportedly hired a PR firm to help him craft his public statement, but now that company says they only did a day’s work for him. So if he approached you —

Bragman: God, no. Please.

Wool: I couldn’t do it. Owning our own company, we have the opportunity to pick and choose who we work with, and if we get approached by a potential client who just doesn’t sit right with our moral code, we have the luxury of being able to say, "You know, this doesn’t work for us."

Mayer: Not everyone is entitled to the best possible PR. That’s not a constitutional right. So when you do defend someone, you’re doing it either because you believe they’ve gotten a raw deal, or you just like the color of their money. I wouldn’t take on a client like that.

Bragman: I’ve always believed that people are entitled to PR the same way they’re entitled to lawyers. That doesn’t mean they’re entitled to me. This is not something I have any well of sympathy for.