The Lion, the Web and the WildCRU

Cecil the Lion. Photo by Dr Andy Loveridge of WildCRU

It started with a phone ringing. Round here, it always does.

‘I’ve just had a call,’ said a colleague. ‘Something about a lion that’s been killed.’

Dear Professor Macdonald,
We’ve taken several calls today from people interested in covering the death of a lion which was apparently being tracked as part of an Oxford research project.
Early email to Professor David Macdonald

And so we became aware of the death of Cecil, one of the lions in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park tracked by the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) team headed by Dr Andrew Loveridge. As Dr Loveridge and the team were out in Hwange, we contacted WildCRU director Professor David Macdonald.

Initial interest was fairly intense but not overwhelming. However, this story caught the public imagination to a degree we rarely see. Media coverage drove public interest and public interest, often expressed via social media, drove media coverage.

Academic colleagues could provide more in depth analysis about the underlying causes and factors that galvanised the public response. But here’s a suggestion of what the key spark may have been:

It wasn’t fair.

That’s more important than the fact it wasn’t legal, or even people’s feelings about hunting generally. Many of those who responded felt there was something underhand and distasteful about the way in which Cecil had apparently been lured to his death. It offended their sense of natural justice.

So they got angry.

That could have gone badly. In fact, the reaction started to go that way, with death threats against Cecil’s killer. Others suggested more constructive responses but it took US comic Jimmy Kimmel to really channel that desire for useful reaction into a campaign to donate to WildCRU’s research.

At the time of writing, over 620,000 pounds has been raised for WildCRU from just over 13,000 people. If you haven’t donated, you can still do so.

We’re going to talk about two aspects of the last few weeks’ media whirlwind. The first is how we and WildCRU managed the media interest. The second, in another post, is about why this story seems to have experienced a longevity and an impact that those of us in the media relations business are always pursuing but less frequently achieve.

Part one: flood response

WildCRU is funded by donations. That means they’re always keen to work with media outlets and the public to explain their work and its importance. That approach gels with the decentralised way in which Oxford does business.

WildCRU were initially being contacted directly by the media, but the level of interest in the Cecil story began to swamp their tightly-staffed office. At the same time, different media outlets (and many of the same ones) were also calling us. We had a blanket policy of asking journalists to email us with their requests. Maybe they rolled their eyes at it, but it wasn’t laziness — it made sure we had the right details for each of them, avoiding the risks of errors creeping in from hasty note-taking or miscopying. It also meant we could log the contact information for every inquiry so that everyone who had an interest (more than 400 addresses) was sent updates as we had them. The media is a hungry beast; we needed to keep it fed because that kept the issue in the public consciousness and helped the fundraising that will — we hope — protect more lions in future.

Our approach aimed to free up David to concentrate on talking to as many media outlets as possible and also allowed us to prioritise who he spoke to first.

This is not to say that we were playing favourites. When you have more requests than you can reply to, applied common sense comes into action.

Big international outlets, like the BBC’s World Service or CNN, are a priority because they reach a lot of people. So too are wire services like the US-based Associated Press or the UK’s Press Association. These services feed a lot of newspapers, TV and radio across the globe, so any information you give them rapidly gets to a lot of places. Given that many of the questions were the same, syndicated content through wire services helped a lot of titles get what they needed without David having to repeat himself quite so much.

Even so, at one point David had more than 200 outstanding interview requests. His impressive efforts and enviable stamina meant that he worked through that list as best he could. WildCRU also gave us pictures and video so that we could respond to the frequent requests for images.

In the end, I am sure we have disappointed some media outlets. If so, we are sorry. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on our part or that of WildCRU.

In part two, I’ll explain how we reached the point where we thought it was all over — and how wrong we were…