Cecil the Lion shows how reputational risk has gone global

Artwork by Susan MacDonald

Drawing by Susan MacDonald

As of this week, Walter J. Palmer of Minnesota, is pretty much obviously the worlds least-popular dentist. Palmer recently shot — as part of what he says he thought was a legal big-game hunt — a lion whose home was a protected national park in Zimbabwe.

There are some lessons for business in this tale. Even though Palmer wasn’t in Zimbabwe to “do business,” as a tourist he was none the less engaging in a commercial transaction.

The first and most obvious lesson involves the risks of doing business overseas, where it is all too tempting to rely on the guidance of locals to tell you what’s legal and what’s not. Palmer says he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” The temptation to rely on quick advice from locals is obvious, but it’s a foolish mistake, particularly when those locals have a financial interest in painting a particular picture for you. The risk here is clear. But how far do you need to go in making enquiries? Anyone doing business overseas has to figure out just how far to go in ensuring the legality (broadly speaking) of various aspects of their business. Is this product legal here? Have you got the right permits? Is paying that fee really on the up-and-up?

The second lesson has to do with the difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical. Palmer believed he was conducting a legal hunt. But what’s legal isn’t always ethical, especially in countries with underdeveloped regulatory systems. The fact that a practice is legal doesn’t imply that you’re doing the right thing, that you should be proud of yourself, or that you’re not going to be subject to well-founded criticism.

Next, there’s a lesson here about ethical disagreement. There is deep and genuine disagreement over the morality of certain practices. Hunting lions is one of those practices, but there are others. Birth control is another. So is refusal to bake a cake for a gay couple. So the fact that you are personally absolutely certain that a business practice is ethical doesn’t mean that others are going to agree.

Finally, there’s a lesson about the vulnerability of businesses to critique in an age of social media and online business ratings. The source of criticism lies in the 2 points just above, namely ethical critique and moral disagreement. But the effect of such critique and disagreement is amplified in a world in which your customers as well as the general public can post online messages about you, more or less with impunity. The Yelp page for Palmer’s dental practice has apparently been flooded with angry messages. Twitter has been awash with criticism, and the story has (partly as a result) received widespread media coverage. The doors to his practice are closed, and it’s not clear whether he’ll ever practice dentistry (in the US) again. He will forever be “that dentist who killed the poor lion.”

Maybe Palmer will need to flee to a developing nation. It would indeed be a kind of irony if the only place Walter Palmer can practice dentistry, in the coming years, is a place like Zimbabwe — a place where social media plays a smaller role, where dentists are needed but seldom get wealthy, and where hunting big game is a significant and tempting form of economic activity.

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