Trouble at the zoo: Copenhagen Zoo and the Marius giraffe crisis

The CEO of Copenhagen Zoo managed to change public opinion about its decision to euthanise a baby giraffe, in Denmark at least.

When Copenhagen Zoo put down a healthy two-year-old giraffe and dissected it in front of a group of visiting school children, it made a splash across international news media. And not in a good way.

Prior to the execution of Marius, animal rights groups had protested to prevent it, but the protest had been relatively contained until the press caught wind of the event.

One particularly brutal headline in a prestigious Danish newspaper read "Zoo keeper: ‘Then I took my gun and shot Marius through the brain’". And soon after, the international media had been whipped into a frenzy.

Scientific director Bengt Holst managed to handle the press in a way that went some way towards salvaging the situation, however.

He was given the difficult task of explaining to both the national and international press why the zoo had chosen to kill Marius. His strategy was consistent throughout the various interviews, but nowhere was it more contested than in an interview with Channel 4 News in Britain (watch above).

Despite the overtly emotional television host, Holst managed to stay calm and refused to accepted the framing offered by the host.

Instead of debating the brutality of the act, Holst turned it into a question of doing what was right for the population in the long term instead of what was popular in the short term.

By questioning the host, Holst challenged the viewer to look at their own beliefs. As he said to a Danish newspaper: "If people knew what was going on in the wild, they would immediately demand nature closed down, too."

A national and international audience divided

While Holst's skilful handling of the press might not have entirely convinced the British and international public, it did spark a very positive reaction in Denmark. After touring the media, scores of columns have been written in various Danish newspapers in support of the zoo and its scientific director in particular.

This divide between Danish and international reaction to the story has been most clear on social media.

International commentators received Holst's performance with mixed reactions, unlike the predominantly positive support received from the Danes. Despite their initially negative reaction, the Danes began sharing pictures and posts thanking the zoo for not mistaking animals for human beings.

Even a member of the Danish Parliament and former minister of education posted a letter on Facebook as a rebuttal to a foreigner's rage over Marius' fate. The post gathered three times more likes than the politician’s own Facebook page.

Holst's handling of the giraffe crisis offers a lesson in how to handle bad publicity.

It shows that spokesmen and CEOs do well to question the framing of the media, when faced with the choice between doing what is right and doing what is popular.

It also shows that the public can be persuaded to reconsider its views in spite of media condemnation.

Sebastian Belmark is head of public relations at HowJdo.com, an online language school portal

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