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Author: David Krejci, Weber Shandwick
Another social meme has come and gone where millions of us discussed—but far fewer acted upon—a behavior many regarded as wrong: killing a lion for kicks. Thanks to the sacrifice of Cecil, many were allowed to illustrate to friends, family and colleagues how upstanding they are by eviscerating a reprehensible hunter cumdentist online, exhaling a collective and secular amen across the congregation of their social spheres.
Social has humanized brands like never before, and it’s causing all sorts of disruption. In this case, the brand is just one guy, of course. But the lesson is the same: the reputation of your company is tied to your behavior “off the field”—even if said “off the field” behavior is arguably legal/permissible/acceptable-by-some. If you ignore that, a crisis can ensue.
But Cecil did what all significant memes do: expose deeper truths about the social psyche—in this case, related to a question many asked throughout the meme’s lifecycle: why do we care about the killing of one lion in Africa more than we care about other far more atrocious acts going on throughout the world? In my personal favorite article about Cecil, Jason Gilbert at Fusion forecasted dozens of fabulous outcomes of Cecil, including:
Someone will point out that there are far greater issues in Africa that we should be paying attention to. This person will be ignored.
Gilbert proved to be largely accurate, of course. So, we ask: why do we care more about a dead lion than even one human suffering anywhere in any place?
Likely, there are dozens of answers. And no answer. But here’s one for consideration: most DON’T care more about Cecil. Instead, Cecil is a proxy for the far more uncomfortable reality of what it was that troubled many of us—we read that things are bad across the world, and that includes Africa, and here’s our limp way of showing sympathy: a social outcry for exploited Cecil as a proxy for Africa itself—i.e., ”the far greater issues” that Gilbert refers to.
Meaning: Murdering Mufasa is a sad but endurable tale. But it’s too painful or overwhelming or confusing to think about Boko Harum’s kidnapping of 276 school girls or six million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Not that those stories went unshared in social; but ask yourself, which hit your feed at a higher volume? I would love to be wrong here, believe me.) And, probably more toward the truth, some things are just off limits for most people’s Facebook wall or Twitter feed. There seems to be a threshold of ugliness that we simply cannot tolerate seeing (and therefore sharing), even if we agree that it is abhorrent in nature. Therefore, we transfer that ugliness to something we find tolerably ugly—say, the slaying of an anthropomorphized lion. But, if that’s the case, how can we ever change catastrophic humanitarian issues using media, social and otherwise? If people turn away from truth, because the truth is too truthful, then what can we do to promote truth? Indeed, if we cared so much for Cecil because we know we do too little for Africa, it’s self-deception of the worst kind.
You may recall the 80s TV advertisement showing children starving in Africa: shot after shot of children dying of malnutrition while Gloria from All in the Family begs for 70 cents a day. On the surface you’d think that tactic would be tremendously effective. How can you not want to help them when you see them? But, the fact is, people turned the channel (or turned away) because, despite feeling deeply sympathetic, it was too painful to witness. There is a primal force within us, it seems, that makes us turn away. The knowledge that too powerful an image will mess with our head down the road. The capacity of the Good Samaritan seems to have limits within our cerebral cortex.
Social and visual media have effected many dramatic changes for the good in the past decade. And it will surely continue. But Cecil’s lesson for any communicator—whether you are marketing chocolate or promoting Planned Parenthood—is that one must understand the emotional limit of your audience, and that visuals are the strongest triggers of emotion. The vast majority of the time, visuals are the best way to communicate a message and drive an emotive response. However, the most effective way to raise awareness of disturbing information may not be through painful visuals, because those visuals are too traumatic and your audience shuts down. Words. Quotes. Statistics. Graphics. Those mediums which place a small but important barrier between emotion and understanding may be the best path to success for the more traumatic devices.
This balance plays out in social marketing and organic posts daily. No matter how one feels about the heavily debated POV behind Chipotle’s The Scarecrow, with 14MM views, two Gold PR Cannes Lions awards and thousands of conversations, it was a marketing success. And, the animation was imperative to that success. It placed that emotional safety net below the viewer so they could absorb a topic that, if shown too literally, would make them shut down.
If nothing else, events like Cecil’s death are always more complex than they appear to be. But there is a fundamental truth at play: the reason for something going “viral” is never solely what it seems. But, I can guarantee, we didn’t share Cecil because we love cats.
David Krejci will bring more crisis preparation/response observations and best practices to the 2015 MIMA Summit during the breakout session “Disruption Defense: Tools for Reputation Management in the Digital Era.” Session attendees will also endure a simulated crisis scenario facilitated by Krejci and Lauren Melcher of Weber Shandwick Minneapolis, using the agency’s award-winning platform firebell. Krejci and Melcher have conducted dozens of firebell training exercises across the globe since 2010.