Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark

The public relations disaster that started at a zoo and spread to a country.

By now, we all know the story. An 18-month-old giraffe named Marius met an early fate at the Copenhagen Zoo when he was “euthanized” with a bullet to the head followed by a live dissection in front of children visiting the zoo and then a feeding to his former neighbors – the lions. Poor Marius was inbred and was deemed not suitable for breeding.

Culling herds is apparently a standard practice at zoos but most people who visit zoos are not aware of this. And for good reason, few would return for a visit.

Reading The Guardian’s coverage of the story alone and the numerous comments, the outcry is palpable with a lot of questions now arising on the state of Denmark and the Danish people.

This is an extreme example of a public relations disaster but it is a great case to learn from.

What went wrong:

Science trumping empathy. It’s quite clear that no one on staff really thought beyond the walls of the zoo in terms of the perception of – and impact on – the public. The scientific life view overshadowed the empathetic life view. And I can image that the public relations staff and/or consultants were out voted by the scientific staff.

Defending a “normal” practice when the general public does not perceive it as “normal”. All week the scientists defended the culling, the dissection and why it was educational for children resulting in a growing public outcry. A course correction was needed to acknowledge what happened and to apologize to those who were offended.

Expanding the negative image. The Zoo apparently took photos and shot video of the culling and distributed it to media, expanding the audience for the event even further and resulting in trial by public opinion. One could argue the story would have had less legs if the visuals were not available to the general public.

Sugar coating leading to conspiracy whispers. The Zoo repeatedly referred to the culling as “euthanasia” when the public viewed it as murder. Since the terminology and the act did not match in the public’s mind, suspicion grew that there was a conspiracy behind the culling.

There is good news coming from this story and perhaps an indication that a lesson has been learned. A second giraffe, also named Marius, at Jyllands Park Zoo in Denmark who was slated for the same fate has been given a reprieve. A reprieve that is over explained and with some serious backtracking by their spokesperson, but a reprieve nonetheless.

If you are a public relations professional who is eager to work in Europe, zoos in Denmark could use your talents. And if you are a giraffe named Marius currently residing in Denmark, you may want to make a run for it.

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