Austrian lesson on power of PR in disputed projects

Mon, Mar 22, 2010, 00:00

The creative thinking that helped reframe a Vienna incinerator as a cultural icon and tourist draw could aid contentious schemes here, writes SUZANNE LYNCH

APPROACHING VIENNA from the east of the city along the Danube, an imposing structure looms across the Viennese skyline. Reminiscent of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, or London’s Tate Modern, the quirky facade with its bold red, blue and gold colour pattern stares defiantly out across the river.

But this is not an art gallery, or cultural or recreational site. The structure, originally built in 1969 and remodelled and redesigned in the late 1980s is a 250,000-tonne capacity waste incinerator that provides heating to a third of Vienna’s homes.

In a city that boasts an unrivalled array of architectural gems from the Habsburg era, a waste incinerator may seem an unlikely tourist attraction, but Spittelau thermal waste treatment plant attracts 10,000 visitors annually, and to many Austrians is a considerable source of national pride.

Incinerators are not an easy sell at the best of times, as the controversy over Dublin’s Poolbeg plant demonstrates. Spittelau’s location – right in the middle of a residential area, and close to schools and a hospital – seems particularly contentious.

But while the erection of the structure did generate protests at the time, the incinerator was built with minimal controversy, and the plant at Spittelau paved the way for the building of two similar incinerators in the city.

So how did something so controversial succeed in winning over public opinion?

It’s all down to one man and an innovative PR idea, says Ruth Strobl from Fernwärme Wien, the company that runs Spittelau.

“The plant was originally built in the late 1960s, but in 1987 it was destroyed by a fire. This was just when the environmental movement was taking off, so potentially it was a public relations disaster.”

Vienna’s mayor at the time, Helmut Zilk, came up with the idea of asking Austria’s best-known artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, to redesign the exterior of the building. As well as a prestigious artist and architect, Hundertwasser was a prominent environmentalist and member of the Green movement. Crucially he was also a vocal opponent of incineration. One year later, he had been converted. The result was a modern, eye-catching, architectural construction, characterised by Hundertwasser’s idiosyncratic colourful mosaics and turrets.

“It was a PR coup,” says Strobl. “Hundertwasser was an internationally renowned artist, who had given his backing to the incinerator. The sober, functional building had become a unique work of art.”

Spittelau’s success wasn’t all down to a clever use of culture, however. Volkmar Lauber, professor of political science at the University of Salzburg, says that when the plant was rebuilt in the late 1980s, Austria had introduced some major legal improvements on dioxin emissions, as a result of environmental controversies in the 1980s. “Spittelau was one of the first installations to adhere to those standards. It seemed to be very serious about really respecting those emission limits. That was part of the secret of its success, besides the unusual architecture.” The fact that it was a waste-to-energy project (the incinerator supplies more than a quarter of a million houses and over 5,000 industrial consumers with heating) also helped to secure support.

Today, the company admits the plant still attracts controversy, but it says it has managed to keep the public on board through transparency and communication. “It has taken years of a sustained communication strategy” says Strobl. “There are still protests, people who don’t agree with what we’re doing, but being honest and transparent is the only way to move forward.” The company has a number of communication strategies in place. It updates its emissions status every 30 minutes on its website, while it updates the public on developments at the plant through local media and internet channels regularly. The company also capitalises on its cultural associations by holding art exhibitions on site.

The case of Spittelau illustrates the power of innovative PR when it comes to dealing with a controversial project. But, apart from getting Louis Le Brocquy or Seán Scully on board, are there any lessons that Irish companies engaged in contentious initiatives can learn from Spittelau?

According to Trish Morrissey, consultant with Drury Communications, communicating with the public and relevant stakeholders from an early stage is essential for companies embarking on a contentious initiative, be it a gas pipeline or overhead lines, a waste disposal site or a major industrial facility. “In the case of planning a contentious project, do all the due diligence you need well in advance. Identify your key audiences and stakeholders and engage in some genuine consultation with them on the project.” This will include setting up meetings and regular information sessions with local residents, liaising with the local and national media, and communicating with local politicians to get the relevant parties’ views on the initiative, she says.

It is also important that, from the outset, companies are fully compliant with relevant legal, and particularly environmental legislation, says Michael O’Reilly, head of environmental law at McCann FitzGerald.

“There is a huge amount of regulation involved in the Irish system. Any of these regulations have the potential to give rise to controversy, either in the initial stages or later on.” At an early stage it is important that all the relevant information and documentation is before the decision-making authorities, he says, while any contractors employed at the construction stage should be fully compliant with all relevant requirements. “Once the project is up and running, the company needs to have someone in place at board level who is responsible for environmental compliance on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

Trish Morrissey also points out companies need to accept that some aspects of the project will inevitably incite controversy. “It’s important not to shy away from the negatives of the initiative. Instead be prepared to calmly counter them by highlighting the positive aspects, provide balance and reassure people about the benefits of what is happening.”

Facts and accurate information are key. “Get your facts straight first before engaging in any public communications. It is important that you establish the company as the most accurate and credible source of information. Don’t let a vacuum develop. This can enable negative sentiment to quickly take over.”

One of the major challenges facing companies is the ability to engage with the changing media environment, she says. “We are now living in a world where bloggers or internet commentators, who may have their facts wrong, can dictate the direction of debate on an issue.” Companies need to be able to respond to inaccurate coverage promptly and accurately.

“After all, as many companies know to their chagrin, it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a short time to lose it. The deft handling of a contentious initiative won’t just help protect the company’s reputation, it could enhance it.”