Stockholm’s Rabbit-Fueled Heating: Why Some Things Are Just Not Good Ideas and How to Rescue “Hopeless” PR Cases

Competent PR professionals can deal with any emergency. It’s their job and it is why we have crisis plans. But there are some cases where even seasoned veterans must wish they had better customers. One that springs to mind is the use of real human cadavers as crash test dummies about a generation ago. Objectively most reasonable people could accept that this testing could make cars safer and benefit humanity. But the same reasonable people also think that it is perhaps a little too ruthless and you will need more than just careful spin to make it palatable.

Just recently the city of Stockholm, Sweden, found itself in exactly this kind of situation. News reports in local media revealed that rabbits culled in city parks were being burned to heat homes. Predictably the coverage in media worldwide was universally negative, especially when it was revealed that these were not wild rabbits but descendents of abandoned pets.

Twitterers, bloggers and journos across the planet pushed each other aside in the rush to express their outrage, and judging by the tone of their pieces they seem to imagine that this was the result of a calculated decision to put energy needs above animal rights. Nobody, it seems, read the original reports which explained clearly that these rabbits were burned not to warm homes but because of an EU directive requiring the city incinerate them instead of burying them. Since the city does not own any ceremonial rabbit incinerators the only option was to use the same waste burning facility that also provides heat for surrounding buildings.

I am not at all surprised that the incinerator operator did not make an effort to answer the negative coverage. Their business does not require much consumer goodwill, they normally operate out of the public eye and they almost certainly have limited PR resources. On the other hand the reputation of the city of Stockholm was more affected by the episode and I expected a little more from them.

When I mentioned this to friends in the city the consensus seems to be that there is nothing you can do about a situation like this, so why bother? On this point I have to disagree. You always have choices and there is always something you can do and I will sketch outlines of possible solutions, just to show that it can be done.

The first choice is, of course, purposeful inactivity. I say “purposeful” because there is a difference between doing nothing because you don’t know what to do and doing nothing because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes ignoring an issue does make it go away provided that there is not a sustained campaign to stop you doing that. If you do go for this option you need to have a Plan B in case it is not forgotten.

A second option is to present your side of the problem and in this situation this means getting out a message explaining the context and perhaps starting a debate about alternative solutions. Perhaps if the media were given more facts they would be better prepared to present a more balanced view of the situation. This is something you need to do quickly and respectfully before the story spirals out of control.

Finally, the third general option is for someone in a position of authority to simply apologize for the “lapse in judgment” and create a group including representatives from the community and animal rights organizations to explore alternative solutions for the future.

Some situations are more difficult than others, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as an impossible PR case. There is always something that you can do and more importantly there is always something useful you can do without overstepping boundaries of ethical behavior.

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