Washington Report – Cecil Aftermath
August is normally a quiet time in the nation’s capital. But not this year. The public relations crisis and related aftermath caused by the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe has posed unprecedented challenges for SCI and your Washington team.
Your SCI leadership took immediate action when the uproar was just beginning. Although the facts of the incident were unclear, emergency meetings were convened as quickly as possible so your leadership could assess the situation and take the necessary action.
SCI leaders operate in recognition of certain realities. One of them is that public opinion in support of hunting is not fixed. Survey research going back decades charts a majority of support for hunting that vacillates in the fifty to seventy percent range. Public support for hunting hit a peak of 78% in 2006. But this solid majority evaporates immediately when the word “trophy” is inserted before hunting. “Trophy hunting” garnered support from only 28% of the public in the same 2006 survey – a plunge of a full fifty percent. These findings have remained consistent through numerous surveys since 2006, and the same phenomenon is observable even among some other hunters, as many of us know from personal experience.
It is not surprising or inappropriate for those of us who are personally invested in trophy hunting to feel a certain sense of offense and outrage over this disparity. After all, the facts and the science are on our side. But the unfortunate reality must be recognized and acknowledged in charting our public relations efforts. SCI simply does not have the power or resources to change American public opinion as a whole. For the sake of comparison, it would take every single penny of SCI’s budget for fifty years straight to fund a public education campaign of the same scope that Coca-Cola routinely deploys to make Americans aware of its latest diet soda.
Fortunately, the vagaries of fleeting public opinion do not dictate the legality and regulatory environment surrounding the pursuit that SCI stands for. The community of international hunters is a relatively small ecosystem that is governed by Congress, federal agencies, international bodies such as CITES, and foreign governments as well. This, by necessity, is the audience upon which SCI must focus to protect and preserve the sport that we cherish.
These decisions are not made lightly, nor in a vacuum. Your SCI leadership team closely monitored the public furor with sophisticated tools that provide a continual measurement of the media environment on any given issue, including blogs and social media. It will come as a surprise to no one that the explosion of coverage and commentary surrounding the incident was overwhelmingly negative. Even your SCI lobbyists on Capitol Hill received queries from Members of Congress who are normally supportive.
It was abundantly clear that the rush to judgement over the events in Zimbabwe had already spilled over the boundaries of the single incident. The incredible din of public and media condemnation threatened to conflate the incident with trophy hunting as a whole. Any and all discussion of trophy hunting overseas in this environment would inescapably be seen through the filter of the events in Zimbabwe. That’s why the only public statement made by SCI in this initial period was to effectively disassociate itself from the incident and the individuals involved. And this action was not taken lightly, coming only after hours of sober deliberation by your leadership.
The end result is that only .5% of the coverage of the incident even mentioned Safari Club. And then the furor began to dissipate. The analytics tool confirmed that the peak of the public outrage came and went within four days. Despite the best efforts of many in the media and our political opposition, SCI was not tarred by association with the events in Zimbabwe.
While the immediate media crisis is largely over, the incident will have a lasting impact on the policy battles that we were already facing. That is the arena where SCI is focusing its resources, deploying strong statements outlining the benefits of hunting, and providing facts and data to supportive surrogates in the media. Congress will not return until after Labor Day, but pieces offering a vigorous defense of hunting have already appeared in key outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and The Hill, a newspaper circulated on Capitol Hill. These are all widely read by lawmakers, staffers, and regulators in federal agencies. SCI is fully aware that many smaller regional and local media outlets have generated coverage that is critical of hunting, but our primary focus has necessarily been to prioritize the media environment that reaches decision makers in Washington.
Frankly, the timing of the incident could not have been worse. Your SCI team had just seized the momentum in the battle to eliminate shipping and cargo policies that discriminate against hunters. South African Airways had just announced the reversal of its ban on trophy shipments, and other airlines were deliberating over doing the same. But it took only hours of concerted outrage over Cecil to topple the major U.S. domestic airways. Our hard fought victory to preserve cargo carriage on Delta evaporated overnight, while American Airlines jumped on the bandwagon to ban trophy shipments in a display of “me too” corporate conformism – even though American offers no direct flights to Africa. And now our entreaties to restore lawful cargo carriage to the other major international airlines are falling on deaf ears.
Anti-hunting zealots in Congress are also working feverishly to exploit the aftermath. Even before leaving for recess, Senators opposed to hunting introduced the “CECIL Act,” which would ban imports of any species that has even been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. And of course, the potential official listing of the African lion under ESA was already pending with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Stand-alone legislation like the CECIL Act has little chance of moving through Congress in the fall, but spending battles do have to be resolved, and it’s not hard to predict that our opponents will look for opportunities to defund the issuance of import permits entirely. Beyond our borders, we are also planning for additional scrutiny of lion hunting by CITES. This could come as soon as September of this year. And African governments have become skittish as well, with some announcing arbitrary bans and closures in certain areas.
These are threats that will require focus and leadership to counter. Even though the media circus has gone quiet for now, these threats will not dissipate anytime soon. But rest assured that your SCI leadership will remain focused on the long-term objective of protecting and preserving hunting, even when massive media commotions have captured the short attention span of the public as a whole. The public will move on. SCI will remain, in the arena, focused on carefully executing its leadership role.—Patrick O’Malley