“Most smart people I know have decided to just not discuss anything sensitive because of the Internet lynch mob looking for any slight mistake.” – Sam Altman, (VentureBeat) 

I was remarking yesterday, that the outrage over #CecilTheLion trumped, (pun gloriously intended) The Donald’s newest attempt to stay relevant by yet another outrageous one-liner. This is exactly why, upon reading the article from PRWeek about Dr. Walter Palmer hiring a well-respected Minneapolis P.R. consultant, John Austin, caught my eye. I can’t imagine being in Mr. Austin’s shoes.

First and foremost, I can’t imagine the P.R. consultant- even as a senior-level and well-established professional, would be able to get a handle on the situation immediately. The playbook couldn’t be made of seeds and allowed to grow- it had to be instantaneously finished- like the little washcloths from the dollar store that just need water. There was almost negative room for error and patience. Whomever took this gig, was going to literally be set-up to fail.

When Mr. Austin terminated the relationship  with Dr. Palmer a mere 24 hours later, I couldn’t speculate why- but I imagine it might have had something to do with the hundreds of tweets and messages and Google reviews all decrying him as various names and posting his address. Those in crisis communications often are sought after a crisis has already occurred, to try and earmuff the deafening blow. Was Dr. Palmer’s consultant, Jon Austin from J Austin & Associates fully prepared for the outrage and backlash?

Human Resources and Public Relations are very similar.  A few years ago, at a director-level job in corporate communications and public relations firm, I was afforded the opportunity to have a first-hand account of what many in the legal field call the, “Cat’s Paw” theory when I was writing for a H.R. publication. Employment Law Daily describes a few recent cases that the cat’s paw theory was used to invoke liability. Labor Employment Perspectives explains the theory as well with an easy to understand definition:

The cat’s paw theory is named after a fable in which a monkey convinces a cat to pull chestnuts out of a hot fire. As the cat burns his paw pulling the chestnuts from the fire, the monkey gobbles them up for himself, leaving the cat with none.

While you ask what it has to do with Cecil the Lion, Dr. Palmer and Jon Austin, think of it this way: Someone in Cecil’s story, is actually the monkey. In public relations, (and especially in crisis communications,) when legal issues are on the line, it’s better to have a team, (with legal representation AND a public relations consultant) simply because of the sheer liability and frankly- safety issues for all involved. We could also easily use this methodology for the team Dr. Palmer had with him on-site in Zimbabwe- that allowed him to slay Cecil. However, it’s as relevant as ever when we look at the liabilities of public relations and crisis communications.

I did a few google searches to see if cat’s paw was ever used in public relations. (The answer was no.) However, it’s plausible, it’s already happened… at least in the public eye. Ever heard of, “guilt by association?” By Mr. Austin taking the gig, (or even just sending the statement to the press,) he associated with Dr. Palmer and that was enough, in many individual’s opinion, to be fairly threatened.

While human resources focuses on legality and ethics, public relations also has the added responsibility that is no doubt, is heaviest: perception.

Could you have ever imagined that people would have threatened to kill Dr. Palmer and hurt his family? I might have estimated, “I’m sure someone out there will say something to that extent or something of equal threat.” I assumed he’d have his address posted and he’d have to find a safe place to stay until things calmed down. Anyone remember Gamergate? Or, any other, “gate” that has occurred in the past 18 months or so? We’ve become a culture of out-spoken anger that has led to needed conversations around injustices that have happened to our fellow human beings and those who share this planet.

Psychology Today discusses the emotions that underline moral outrage. According to a October, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jessica Salerno and Liana Peter-Hagene, two emotions are needed for moral outrage: disgust and anger. Cecil the Lion perfectly fit the mold for moral outrage for many reasons, especially how he was lured out of the safe environment, beheaded and left bare in the field. It’s almost too much to think about.

A 2013 study, from Beihang University in Beijing, of Weibo, a Twitter-like site, found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy came in a distant second. The main difference, said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers.  (NYTimes.com)

I suspect this particular “perfect storm” of moral outrage and social media had another element to it: Outrage has become both acceptable and accessible. We have the ability to track news easier and more quickly than ever before. Slate actually looked at 365 days of, “outrage” in 2014 and tracked it graphically. I truly don’t believe 2009 or 2010′s Twitter would have erupted to the extent it has today. 5 years ago, we were all still worried about our perception online. Now, it seems to be MORE appropriate to speak out in some cases. Outrage fills our facebook feeds, (I even catch myself amping up emotion to try and express my feelings when it comes to my hot-button issues.) Most of us, join in without realizing it. Could some of us have more of an, “outrage gene” than others? The always enlightening NYTimes, wrote a piece in 2014 that asked the question, “Is one individual more susceptible to outrage than another?” And more importantly, at what point does outrage cause harm?

Internet outrage often says more about the commenter than the cause, and its deployment may do more harm than good, to the instigator and the issue….Correlation is not causation; voicing outrage on the Internet may not lead to a fistfight when the laptop is closed. But while expressing anger led to short-term relaxation for the study’s participants, Professor Martin said that “previous research on catharsis shows that people who vent end up being angrier down the road.” (NYTimes.com)

While I’m not suggesting in anyway that we shouldn’t be outraged on social media, (I love a well-placed angry tweet!) I’m wondering how outrage has so taken over where discussion has failed. Teddy Wayne, writer of the NYTimes article, believes that responses of outrage can “overshadow or diminish the complexity of a subject, narrowing into a reductive meme or hashtag rather than opening up a thoughtful debate.” And, according to internet sensation, Know Your Meme, someone has already asked for permission to add a Cecil the Lion meme to the database- though many others have already been generated.

The point is this: Our tools to express communication have evolved and our emotions have evolved with the tools to make for a scary precedent in any situation that incorporates the big two that allow moral outrage to occur: anger and disgust. As p.r. practitioners, we must remember that situations are truly more complicated below than on the surface and human behavior is dictating that the internet can be an emotional, vengeful place.

“Like a giant dysfunctional family consumed with animosity and who thinks yelling is the appropriate way to communicate, social media interactions are far more likely to consist of expressions of outrage, accusations, and name calling instead of conversations. Ultimately, what was supposed to bring us together is serving to drive us apart.” (VentureBeat)