“Welcome to the chaos”

1 April 2021

“We bet this isn’t what you had in mind when you googled Stockholm” – the poster greets the visitor in front of an enormous hole with countless cranes and other construction machines. Not exactly a tourist sight.

Here, in the heart of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm is rebuilding one of the busiest intersections of the city. The Slussen (Swedish for water lock) project is one of the largest of its kind in Sweden. Five years of construction work, and still only half way through: a huge challenge for the management of the traffic flows that pass through this bottleneck every day. And a huge challenge for the communication with commuters, neighbours and visitors.

As the poster with the laconic comment shows, the communications team opted for a tongue-in-cheek strategy. With success, as communications director Eva Rosman tells us in the interview.

Eva Rosman and another poster: “We’ll be ready soon…ish”

You are using humour in your communication of the Slussen project. But the first public reaction on the plan to reconstruct the area has been angry opposition, as I understand it.

This project had been discussed for more than twenty years, when in 2007 it was decided to rebuild the lock and the roads around it. Slussen had been rebuilt four times before and the current construction of the 1930s had to be renewed. A majority of the Stockholmers saw this positively, but at the same time there was strong resistance and organised protest. The communication of the city then focused on the critics and was rather defensive, mainly explaining why the reconstruction was necessary.

Now you put out posters around the site, saying “Welcome to the centre of chaos!” When did you decide to change the tone?

That was after we had started the works. We had installed a window to watch the construction site and realised how many people really were interested in what was happening. We got completely different type of comments and questions now. We also opened an Instagram account with pictures from the works. The tone there was a bit more relaxed, a bit lighter. We were proud about our project and felt we should not be overly careful. Instead, we wanted to make use of the curiosity many people had and take them with us on the journey.

How did the city administration of Stockholm react to this approach?

Our idea was to present the city in a completely different way. We wanted to show empathy and humour, self-criticism and ironic distance – and that could of course go wrong completely. But we got approval to try it out. A brave decision of the city administration!

“Our project is causing trouble for many” – that’s why it’s important to get the communication right.

Many people are directly affected by the works: neighbours, commuters etc. Is humour enough to deal with them?

Our project is causing trouble for many, that is something we are very aware of. From the beginning, we have spent a lot of time to talk with people. We inform in detail about what we are doing. Many neighbours know by now exactly what kind of works causes what noise and recognise the sound of a drilling machine. We send an sms to announce rock blastings so people can prepare. And we are always available for them.

“A bit of fun together makes things so much easier”

What is your recipe for conversations with angry neighbours or commuters?

The most important thing is to listen and to show that we understand. Then we ask them to propose a solution – that makes them reflect themselves instead of just demanding something. We also learned to distinguish between those who really are concerned and genuinely angry on one side and querulants on the other. A genuinely angry person usually starts loud and aggressively and becomes more quiet the longer you talk; often the conversation ends in a friendly way. With a querulant, it is exactly the other way round: he or she heats up more and more, the discussion escalates. Luckily, we do not have too many of those situations. Most people accept that there are obstructions, but think of the advantages that will come.

What made it possible for you to turn the public mood?

I think that we are accessible and meet the people face to face. That we are honest with them, especially about negative aspects of our work. And that we understand them and feel compassion. That way, we can also have a bit of fun together about everything – that makes things so much easier!

Photos: Ulf Leide /