Spin Control for the Lion-Killing Dentist--and Fiat Chrysler, Too

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 04, 2015

Last month, Fiat Chrysler said it would recall 1.4 million cars, from Dodge Vipers to Jeep Grand Cherokees, because they’re vulnerable to hacking through the company’s uConnect infotainment system.

Fiat Chrysler has a big job helping us get over the image of hacked Jeeps. (FCA photo)
Fiat Chrysler has a big job helping us get over the image of hacked Jeeps. (FCA photo)

That move came after a pair of hackers showed they could remotely disable a Jeep, play with its brakes, and generally remotely disrupt cars by jacking into the Internet-connected mobile data network. That story went viral, and spun out of FCA’s control.

Walter Palmer (left) and 2005 trophy: In the lion-killing business for a while.
Walter Palmer (left) and 2005 trophy: In the lion-killing business for a while.

Around the same time, an obsessed hunter from Minnesota, dentist Walter Palmer—who has a record of killing anything that moves—paid $50,000 to shoot a protected lion outside Hwange National Park. When he and his guides discovered it was the beloved Cecil, complete with Oxford University radio collar, they did their best to hide the evidence—including trying to burn the collar. That story went globally viral, even bigger than FCA. No matter where you were in the world, you heard about the hacked Jeep and the lion-killing dentist.

Is spin possible in these circumstances? Yes and no, says Greg Smith, chief creative officer at the Via Agency in Portland, Maine. The company, which has spun the message for corporate clients like Perdue (“No Antibiotics Ever”), Samsung and JBL (and also for Greenpeace), would have its work cut out for it defending either new client.

Cecil - Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe by Vince O

“The first thing is you have to learn from the past, and it goes all the way back to the Tylenol case,” Smith said. “Transparency matters. Corporate leadership has to step out in front, admit to its failings, and commit to a process so that it doesn’t happen again.”

You may remember the Tylenol case. In 1982, somebody doused samples of the Johnson & Johnson painkiller with cyanide, and seven people in the Chicago area died. J&J was very quick with a response—a recall of 31 million bottles of the stuff, and a tamper-proof package—and sales of the company’s best seller recovered.

Cecil: How hard is it to hunt a lion? by Vince O

Toyota, Smith said, was “very guarded” in handling the unintended acceleration cases that started to appear in 2009, and as a result the company looked like it was hiding something, Smith said. Today, Toyota has learned its lesson and appears proactive in handling recalls and other bad news.

General Motors “did a really remarkable job” in handling its own huge ignition-related recalls, Smith said, putting CEO Mary Barra up front and apologetic. “It was clearly a tragedy, and it was deeply troubling,” she said.

Jeep owners are probably “angry or scared” now, Smith said, so FCA has to act quickly to “reach out and repair that relationship, and take all the necessary steps to ensure that people are safe.”

OK, so what about Walter Palmer? Smith laughed. “There’s nothing to be done. You shoot a lion and everybody knows about it. People are telling him to rot in hell. He had to hide.” Smith compared the prospect of defending Palmer to trying to spin Joey Buttafuoco, the New York body shop owner who in 1992 was having an affair with 16-year-old Amy Fisher (subsequently the “Long Island Lolita”)—until Fisher shot Buttafuoco’s wife, Mary Jo. Anybody going to get fender work from that guy?

There’s no defending Palmer. From any angle, he looks like a complete jerk. Not only did he kill a protected lion, but he did it after paying lavishly for guides to take him within bow and arrow range. After his team tried to cover up the evidence, he fled back to the U.S. and went into “hiding,” issuing defensive, self-serving statements from his bunker:

 I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.

He regretted only “that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.” That comes across as saying that “mistakes were made,” evading personal responsibility, and putting the blame on others. It’s the opposite of what GM’s Mary Barra did, and the opposite of what FCA has to do now. If FCA just blames renegade suppliers, it’s going to lose market share.

Jimmy Kimmel and Cecil, before the tears came. (ABC-TV)
Jimmy Kimmel and Cecil, before the tears came. (ABC-TV)

Palmer will have a hard time living this down—now it appears he tried to impress a waitress with photos of the lion’s carcass. The poor guy had a name, for crying out loud. But if spin is possible, it’s in exploiting an actual effect of his case: By killing Cecil, Palmer called attention to the plight of African lions, and some will undoubtedly be saved as a result.

Professor David Macdonald is director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford, which put the collar on Cecil. “The backdrop to this story is that there is a global crisis in wildlife conservation,” Macdonald said. “For lions in particular, their numbers are dwindling throughout the continent.”

The numbers are indeed sobering. Without much press attention, African lions have dwindled to just 10,000 to 15,000, the African Conservancy reports, down from 50,000 a decade ago. “The willingness of Asians and Westerners to pay handsomely for lion head trophies combined with the urgent need for revenue among African locals means that these great predators are increasingly hunted for sport,” the group said.

The Oxford-sponsored anti-poaching patrols that countered the lion killers in Hwange National Park were about to be shut down because of a lack of funds. Now, thanks to an international outcry over Cecil, they’ll continue. No thanks to the dentist are due, though.

Palmer’s team could also counter that the fees hunters pay (including his own $50k) stimulates the local economy and supports keeping wild areas wild. He could try that, but I doubt it would play all that well. He’s toast. Here's Jimmy Kimmel's routine on the subject:


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