5 Tips for When PR Firms Play With Fire

Protesters gather outside Walter Palmer's dental practice.
Protesters gather outside Walter Palmer's dental practice.
Protesters gather outside Walter Palmer's dental practice.

Walter Palmer is finding that help can be hard to come by. The Midwestern dentist has been under intense scrutiny since he admitted to killing Cecil, an African lion beloved by tourists and researchers alike, while on a trophy hunt in Zimbabwe earlier this month. The Minneapolis-based PR firm J. Austin & Associates—which helped distribute his official statement—terminated its short-lived relationship with Palmer on Wednesday, according to The New York Times.

Jon Austin, a senior partner with J. Austin & Associates, confirmed the break from Palmer with a post to his Twitter account:

It seems that everyone and everything associated with Palmer has gone up in flames since the revelation of Cecil’s killing earlier this week. Palmer’s dental practice in Minnesota has been closed since Tuesday and was the scene of protests against trophy hunting and memorials in Cecil’s honor. J. Austin & Associates has also had a Yelp page created—though not claimed by the firm—and has been subsequently lambasted since Tuesday.

The world of crisis management has never been smooth sailing, especially since the advent and proliferation of digital communications. That’s why smart PR pros will know that they have to pick their battles. Taking on an infamous client surrounded by such deafeningly negative sentiment needs to be a carefully calculated decision. After all, the payoffs from successfully managing such a crisis would be significant for any firm, but the risks can be great too.

Taking on a controversial client will always be a gamble, but with some thorough planning and an understanding of what you can offer, you may escape being dragged down with a sinking ship. With this in mind, here are a few points courtesy of Richard Levick, chairman-CEO of Levick, and Erica Normand, marketing supervisor with Deveney Communication, to start you off on evaluating a potentially controversial client.

Know the severity of the crisis—Not acknowledging the full spectrum of the conversation surrounding a potential client is a good way to bite off more than you can chew. At that point, hopefully you know someone certified in CPR.

Gauge the potential customer response—Will you lose current or future business by tackling a controversial issue or client? If it can happen to Edelman, it can happen to you.

Know the power of the media and public sentiment—PR pros know better than most how the court of public opinion doesn’t dispense justice blindly.

Keep in mind the timing—Timing is everything in communications. Are you taking on the client just as public anger reaches a crescendo? Or has the cleanup process already begun?

Evaluate how much goodwill the client had in the past—Whether or not the client has risen from obscurity into the spotlight or has an established public image can make all the difference.