In the last two weeks, the Anglo-American world’s collective Super Ego came together to obliterate the reputation of a previously unknown American dentist.
Amongst calls for hanging, hunting, and letting him loose amongst the very African animals he enjoys hunting, the mob leveraged the power of the free market to see to it that he’d feel the hurt financially, whether or not he ever spends a day behind bars. To date, his business is still shuttered – a shrine of stuffed animals barricading the entrance.
The government of Zimbabwe has caught on to the fact that social outrage is very en vogue – officials have dripped every tantalizing, sordid detail of the case out slowly, allowing the scandal to smolder on. Just over the weekend they suggested another American, a gynecologist this time, had also been caught lion poaching. The internet positively salivated, and celebrities prepared themselves for a show of “I’m more outraged than you™”.
The wave of collective shaming has of course been punctuated by reminders that every day in America, it seems, humans – and notably people of color – lose their lives to senseless violence. It is, of course, worth discussing why certain injustices seem more easily to transform into causes celebres, however, the suggestion that people care more for a Zimbabwean lion than a black American (or a fetus, if you ask Sarah Palin), creates a false dichotomy.
For a start, people can care about two things (or more) simultaneously. Justice, attention, and concern are not finite resources. But more importantly, at the core, racially motivated police abuse, and the baiting and killing of a protected lion, share a common thread of outrage – privilege.
This is why ‘the internet’ has its hackles up. A privileged American – the kind of person who has $50,000+ to spend on a stuffed lion head – will probably never face any kind of justice. It’s not right, but more importantly to many, it doesn’t seem fair.
Even when other avenues for ‘justice’ seem inaccessible, people want to see the privileged pay – literally. Money has become the currency of social justice.
Nowhere is privilege more maligned than in the corporate sector.
If you think your business is immune to popularity of internet activism – think again. One flippant twitter comment can very quickly find your brand on the losing end of a viral petition.
If we have learned anything from Cecil’s untimely demise, it’s that the internet’s collective bloodlust will not be quelled by mere apology.
Put your money where your mouth is or the internet will come for you business. Because its no longer about what you said or did – it’s about the perceived privilege with which you did it, and the fact an apology doesn’t cost you anything, doesn’t address the perceived ‘lack of fairness’.
Today’s crisis and reputation strategists need to think about pairing words with actions, and apologies with concrete moves to right the wrong. It’s not enough to doll up your CEO, hand them a script, and tell them to look remorseful.
The mea culpa – the carefully crafted corporate apology of the 20th Century – is as dead as that lion.
Brands needs to wise up or, like Walter Palmer, they’ll find themselves pilloried by internet ‘outrage’ – the collective firepower of which dwarfs even the biggest hunter’s rifle.
Melyn McKay is a socio-cultural anthropologist and a partner with Monticello LLP.
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