“200 bed bugs in every train compartment”? Rentokil’s PR FAIL

by nobugsonme on March 16, 2010 · 1 comment

in bed bugs, misinformation

On March 3rd, the Daily Mail reported based on research by Rentokil that

. . . on average, a single train compartment houses a staggering 1,000 cockroaches, 200 bed bugs, 200 fleas, 500 dust mites and 100 carpet beetles.

And remember that we suggested back then that this was a bit sensational?

(Along with the Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and Telegraph also presented the figures as if they were “average” and real.)

Well, Tuesday’s Independent Business Diary reports that

Red faces at Rentokil and its PR agency BrandsLife, which claimed research showed the typical train carriage might be home to 1,000 cockroaches, 200 bedbugs and 200 fleas. The shocking findings were widely covered in the media, but prompted some cynicism amongst scientists who actually know a thing or two about such matters. After a series of blogs questioning the research, Rentokil has published “a clarification and an apology”. This was a worst-case scenario, Rentokil now admits, based on assumptions such as the carriage never being cleaned or carrying any passengers to stamp on the pesky insects.

Note: I want to stress that the figures were presented in the media not as possibilities which “might be true” as the Independent notes, but as averages.

Of course, to those who know bed bugs in particular, cleaning train carriages, or being present to “stamp on” bed bugs is not sufficient to eliminate a bed bug infestation.

Still, Rentokil’s apology notes that other assumptions behind their hypothetical scenario were that the bus in question was left in an isolated place, with an optimal male-female bed bug ratio, a plentiful food supply, and yet — and this is the kicker where bed bugs are concerned — with no humans present.

Some debate around a story doing the rounds over last couple of weeks, when our PR Agency released numbers calculated on a hypothetical worst case scenario, which were presented as “average” or “typical”.

The blogger who got to the bottom of this story was Ben Goldacre (see his March 12 post in the Guardian).  He points out in this post on Bad Science that Rentokil’s press release about the potential for pests in public transportation came the day after the company secured a £200 million five-year contract with the London Underground.  The Twitterverse picked up Goldacre’s tweets about how Rentokil and PR firm Brands2Life were apparently ignoring his request for information on the figures, which no doubt helped bring about the apology (Twitter fans may enjoy this sampling).

Make no mistake, bed bugs have the potential to seriously infest public transportation. But it’s important that “research” is shared beyond the level of a soundbite and is based on information or at least presented as hypothetical and based on realistic scenarios.

Sensational reports can distract the public from the real problems posed by a pest such as bed bugs, which do get around (but not if they live on abandoned buses).


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