It appears that a week doesn't go by without a reputation-management disaster going viral on social media. Depending on the conduct, the result could be public outrage that spreads around the world. "Internet shaming" can ruin the reputation of a business as well as the offending employee, manager or owner, adversely affecting the other shareholders and partners of the business, as well as other employees who might have nothing to do with the so-called offending activity.
Customers may well be driven away once the offending behaviour is discovered. Businesses may close. Employees may lose their jobs.
The most recent example is the Minnesota dentist who killed a famous lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil. The dentist said he put his faith in experienced guides, who apparently obtained proper permits to hunt and were supposed to know where hunting was allowed and not allowed. However, news reports indicate that the lion was illegally lured with bait out of a protective enclave where hunting wasn't allowed and into an area where it was.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't agree with trophy hunting, whether the dentist killed a lion or an elephant or a bear. But as bad as this was (at least to me), the Internet shaming may be far worse, especially when the social-media outrage becomes threatening and potentially criminal.
In this case, Internet shaming has gone too far. The dentist has received death threats on social media. "You are a marked man … wherever you go… wherever you hide …," one said. "Take him down …," another said. The dentist has gone into hiding. His office's Facebook page and website have been taken down because of threats that his office should be attacked. When the dentist was first identified, patients indicated on social media that they will move to other dentists. Later in the week, the dentist announced that he was permanently closing his practice, resulting in the layoff of the hygienists and other employees who worked for him.
There is currently a petition on change.org under #JusticeForCecil to hold everyone involved with the lion's death "accountable" (whatever that means) and calls for the dentist to be extradited to Zimbabwe and tried there – a country renowned for racism and corruption and where the rule of law is virtually non-existent. Does anyone in their wildest dreams think that a wealthy American will get a fair trial in Zimbabwe? Surely, the cash-starved government must be held complicit for allowing trophy hunting of big-game animals in the first place (and taking $50,000 U.S. from the dentist for the "privilege").
It gets worse. Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has said that if the news reports about luring the lion are correct, the dentist "needs to be extradited, charged and, preferably, hanged."
Obviously, the case of the lion and the dentist is an extreme example. But it serves to remind businesses that they should regularly plan for the possibility of reputation-management disasters the way they plan for the possibility of fires, floods or other calamities. In addition to assessing insurance requirements and developing a business continuity plan, they should also be examining their social-media risks, and how to deal with social-media disasters large and small. Seek out crisis-management experts (which may include media, public relations and legal experts) before a potential disaster strikes so that if and when it does, they're on speed dial, together with the insurance agent.
Arguably, if your partners, shareholders or senior employees engage in an activity that is likely to cause an Internet storm and damage the business and brand, maybe it means that they should consider confining their activities to scuba diving, hang gliding or golf, as opposed to trophy hunting.
From a legal perspective, what has happened over the past week is far more troubling. The court of public opinion has turned into a kangaroo court.
It's important to remember on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta why we have the rule of law. We strive to have a justice system where a person is guaranteed a fair trial and is not subject to arbitrary or capricious punishment by those in authority. Likewise, a person should not be subject to arbitrary and capricious punishment by mob rule. The dentist is entitled to all the protections of the legal system, just as you and I are. The form of justice we're seeing on the Internet (and, indeed, from PETA) is vigilante justice. Vigilante justice is no justice.
Moreover, when an organization such as PETA calls for the execution of a human being who may or may not have broken a law in a corrupt country, upholding the rule of law is more important than ever. Whether they've broken a law or not, individuals need to be protected from the mob, and from those who incite the mob.
Indeed, after calling for the execution of the dentist, PETA will probably have its own reputation-management crisis with its supporters and donors in the following weeks.
I'll bet that PETA has already contacted its crisis managers.
Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.
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