media strategy

When a terrier may be better than a poodle

4:55 min

After the debacle surrounding Social democrat leader Håkan Juholt and his double housing allowance, the PR-strategists are offering their analysis of what went wrong. Now, the often called-for media strategy of "doing a poodle", has been accompanied by - a terrier.

"Normally you connect a poodle with backing off, lying down, lying on his or her back, saying ok, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, while a terrier is associated with barking back, attacking and enforcing his right. One is defensive, one is more aggressive," says Lars Thalén, communications or crisis consultant.

He has been watching the social democrats and Håkan Juholt's manoeuvres over the past couple of weeks with a growing sense of dread.

It all started on a Friday, eleven days ago, when the tabloid Aftonbladet revealed that for years, the main opposition party's candidate to become future prime minister had been receiving housing allowance for the whole rent of his Stockholm flat, even though he shares it with his girlfriend - meaning that tax payers had not just pay his rent, but also that of his girlfriend.

Håkan Juholt acted quickly. In a classic example of "doing a poodle", he called a press conference, and - not blaming anyone but himself - he admitted he had made a mistake. He said that he had not been aware of it - but as soon as it was brought to his attention, he took steps to rectify it, and pay back the money - over 20,000 US dollars.

For a week, Håkan Juholt re-iterated his apology and stand-point, while party activists took turns in expressing their disappointment. Then on Friday, after a six hour long meeting, the party executive acknowledged that the revelations had caused the party damage, but that they still trusted their leader. Soon after that, the criminal fraud investigation was dropped, as the prosecutor had found the rules were not clear enough, and it could not be proven Juholt had done anything wrong.

Nevertheless, Håkan Juholt has this week started what has been called a tour of reconciliation, visiting party activists around the country, apologising for the damage caused. "I am so very sad for the disappointment and anger that many of you feel," he told at one of those meetings, yesterday.

But if you ask the PR consultant Lars Thalén, none of this would have been necessary if he had chosen to take on a terrier-strategy instead of doing a poodle.

"He should have known that the rules were not as good as they ought to be. In that situation, he should have taken the aggressive stance and said: "ok, we have a system that does not work. I have myself got 160,000 Swedish kronor too much, I will pay them back. But I also demand that the rules should be changed, so that no other parliamentarian will get too much or suffer from the vagueness of the rules. Then this would not have been a big issue."

But often, there is a lot of pressure for someone to do a poodle in this situation. "Too many journalists and even PR consultants think that a poodle is the only alternative. That is a misguided and misleading advice to people in his situation," says Lars Thalén.

He says there are examples of when other people in high positions have chosen a terrier-strategy instead, and when it has been successful. Such as when the CEO of the alcohol monopoly Systembolaget a few years ago refused to do a poodle when it turned out that several local store owners had accepted bribes from liqueur providers to have their bottles exposed in the store. Instead of apologising, the CEO went after the corrupt store owners and reported them to the police.

Lars Thalén does however admit that it is not always obvious which strategy is the best, and that it is clearer when you have the benefit of hindsight. "But it is at least a question you should always ask. I think deep down, people have a gut feeling "am I guilty or am I not guilty?". If you feel you are not guilty, you should at least consider: "Can I turn this to my own advantage by making a terrier, instead of carrying all the blame by doing a poodle?".