Did the Chilean government communicate well during this tragedy?

First of all and just like with the events in Haiti, all our solidarity at this time is with the people of Chile during these difficult times they are living.

The government of Chile reacted much better than Haiti’s when dealing with this catastrophe.  Chile’s institutions are without doubt, much stronger than Haiti’s.  President Michelle Bachelet did an extraordinary job.  She took immediate control of the situation.  She visited affected areas, called for calm and assured the population that all of the nation’s resources were being mobilized to face this situation.  She was seen presiding and leading meetings of the crisis committee to decide what to do and to know, first-hand, how the situation was progressing.  Even the president-elect, Sebastián Piñero, visited the devastated areas.  That showed important leadership on his part.  There was quick and clear action.  The government looked to be in control.  But it wasn’t just a perception of being in control.  The state went into action immediately.  Chile demonstrated once again its tradition of efficiency, character and drive.

What Chile is going through is a real tragedy.  The worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.  The US Geological Institute states that the earthquake measured 8.8 in the Richter Scale.  Mexico’s Seismological Institute asserts that an earthquake measuring 5.0 is equal to the strength of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.  They added that every increase of a point multiplies the intensity by 30.  That means that Chile received an impact equivalent to 120 Hiroshima nuclear bombs.

When something like this happens, it is impossible for all communication plans to be executed as planned.  The reality is too harsh.  Without a doubt, no one can be truly prepared to face circumstances such as these.  Having said that, and recognizing the quick and decisive action of the government and population, I must add that there were various holes in the area of communication.  Especially in a country such as Chile, which should have these plans in perfect condition since it is a nation that is constantly under threat of a seismic event.

It is one thing to have a communications plan and another to execute it well.  Obviously, I must assume that there is a comprehensive communications plan for situations such as this, but it was clear just by watching Chilean television that  the authorities were not communicating effectively with a wide segment of the population about what was being done to help them.  Of course, the government’s priority is to put into practice their plans of assistance, but it’s just as important to communicate these well.  The lack of communication during the first vital hours only aggravates the situation and elevates the victims’ feelings of despair and abandonment.  Not only must you be in charge, but also appear like you are in control.  Perception is truly important in this case.

As I have said, the broadcasts on Chilean television spoke by themselves.  In many of the affected areas survivor statements were very dramatic.  They had spent 24 hours sleeping on the street.  There were no available shelters.  There was no medical assistance available either.  They hadn’t seen any government officials.  There were no basic food supplies for the children.  There was a lack of water, blankets, food.  No one was telling them what to do, where to go, what to expect.  There were robberies and a general lack of safety.

All of these issues have to do with the assistance system itself.  As I said before, during a catastrophe of this magnitude, there isn’t a perfect answer and Chilean authorities demonstrated exemplary efficiency and professionalism.  We have already seen the problems faced by the most powerful country in the world during Hurricane Katrina.  These are very complex situations.  However, where were the authorities to explain what was going on to the people who were asking these questions?  Of course there is a National Emergency Office in Santiago that broadcast information throughout the day, but how did this information get to those who didn’t have access to TVs, radio or electricity to listen to these reports?  Who would tell them what was going to happen in their city, their neighborhood?  Many were asking themselves these very questions.  Where is the government going to distribute food, water, medications?  Where can I get access to these supplies now?  Are any supermarkets open?  And if there aren’t, can we get food from the closed ones without being accused of stealing?  Will there be international assistance?  Can I benefit from it?  Are the airports open?  How can I get in touch with my relatives?  How can I find out if someone I know is on the casualty list?  Are there shelters available, if only for children?  Where?  Can someone let me know if it is safe to stay home without danger of the structure falling on me?  It is one thing that the authorities are not doing anything and another that we are not aware of what is being done.  In fact, the President mobilized the police immediately to guarantee the population’s safety.  However, this was not communicated well at all.  The police couldn’t reach all areas in just a few hours, but if the population is not informed well about the government’s actions, they feel like they have simply been abandoned.

I also ask myself, how is it possible that television reporters can be dispatched everywhere and the authorities couldn’t reach those same locations if only to have a representative and calm and inform the population?  The government has helicopters, airplanes, all-terrain vehicles at its disposal.  The reporters don’t have anywhere near those resources and, even so, are able to arrive before government representatives.  Why is that?  How is it possible for the victims to see a reporter that brings them news and information before a government representative?  Where is the army?  Why aren’t they patrolling the streets to help the police?  Many people were asking these very questions.  The complexity of this type of government mobilization is immense, but if the population is not informed about why things are happening or not it will come to the wrong conclusion.  “The only ones that are concerned enough to get here are the reporters.”

The media becomes an important ally for the government during times like these.  They are covering the tragedy 24 hours a day and can help to get the message to the victims that need to hear.  The government needs to make available to the media a real army of spokespersons and specialists ready to convey all the information available.  Not only through frequent press conferences, but available 24 hours a day.  Experts who can convey complex messages in a simple and clear way. 

Thirty-six hours after the tragedy, the President and her cabinet gave a press conference.  Bachelet explained everything that the government was doing and announced that she would meet with the president-elect to share information.  Seeing them both dealing with this issue was, without doubt, a powerful statement.  A brilliant decision.  A good message.  The President then left, leaving her cabinet to answer questions.

The media was hungry for answers.  There were hundreds of legitimate questions. The Minister of Defense, after reminding everyone that this was the fifth most destructive earthquake ever, admitted errors by the Navy during the process of announcing the possibility of a tsunami.  This was a very favorable point in his favor.  No one expects a perfect response by the government during such a disaster.  Mistakes are made.  We all assume that the authorities are doing everything humanly possible, but we also know they are not perfect.  However, when in answer to another reporter’s question, another minister denied that there was any problem with security in the affected areas. “That does not have anything to do with the truth,” he stated.  That was a very big mistake.  All you had to do was watch television and listen to the comments from survivors to know that security was a real problem.  Not generalized, but a problem for those who were suffering it.  In a live feed from the disaster zone, TV Chile reporter Amaro Gómez Pablo said that if the authorities didn’t get there soon “there could be chaos” when night fell.  Discounting the victims’ concerns was a clear mistake on the part of the minister.  The looting was broadcast on TV.  And someone who loots a supermarket to steal a flat-screen TV set will also break into a house to steal. Not everybody who looted the supermarkets did it because they were hungry.  There were also real thieves.

The President said that dealing with the emergency and reconstruction are the government’s priorities.  The ministers answered more questions and left while there were still many more questions to answer.  Another clear mistake.  In a situation such as this one, at least one of the ministers needs to stay until all the questions are answered.  The whole country, and in fact many countries all over the world, were watching this press conference.  They all needed answers.

Of course, the media is always going to have more questions.  Of course, during the first hours after a disaster there always are more questions than answers before the situation starts to become clearer.  Nevertheless, those early hours are the most vital.  Not only because the need for assistance is urgent and it is a matter of life and death, but because a poor public perception regarding the government’s reaction can ruin its reputation.

Hours later I saw a Minister on Chilean TV.  In spite of the reporter’s questions about what was the specific mistake made by the Navy during the process of the tsunami alert and which areas were specifically under curfew, the Minister never gave a clear answer that the reporter could understand.  And, if the reporters could not understand him the audience probably didn’t either.  I am sure the Minister was not trying to avoid answering; he just had not been trained as to how to answer the reporter’s questions in a clear and effective way.

On the other hand, to communicate during times like these, shouldn’t the government provide the population with battery-charged radios so they can listen to the government’s reports?  As a last resort, couldn’t they parachute radios to the most remote locations?  That is what the Pentagon does when it invades a country.  And they do it to make sure the population listens to its message.  Why didn’t they have these radios ready?  The population needs to know where it can find help, where to take their relatives in need of medical assistance.  If people go to the wrong locations it generates further congestion and problems.

A national tragedy such as this one can happen at any time.  An earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, a devastating snow storm, massive fires, an industrial accident.  Even a terrorist attack.  The examples are unending.

During these difficult times it is essential to communicate effectively.  First, there must be a plan.  Secondly, the plan must be rehearsed frequently to make sure it works.  And thirdly, when a disaster happens, all the necessary tools must be put to work to ensure the effectiveness of the communication.

Congratulations once again to the Chilean authorities for their speediness and effectiveness.  However, there are lessons that can be learned for the next disaster which, sooner or later, will take place somewhere else in the world.

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