From Miners to Celebrities… and All the Way to the Bank

 “Chile will be remembered and recognized not for Pinochet, but as an example of unity, leadership and valor, faith and success,” stated Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera to the Times of London.

Chile has written a story that will be very difficult to overcome not only in the field of mine disaster rescues, but of public relations.

As the Chinese proverb so well states, every crisis is an opportunity and the Chilean authorities have masterfully positioned their country during this crisis as not only an empathetic, brave and hard-working nation, but as an especially effective one.  That knows how to do things correctly.  A model to be followed.  No public relations campaign, not even one with an unlimited budget, would have been able to get these results.  Not by a long shot.

The rescue work at the San José de Copiapó mine was done by the book.  Rescuing all the miners was undoubtedly a miracle, but a miracle that became a reality thanks to a minutely planned strategy that was executed with the utmost level of professionalism.  Nothing was left to chance.

Today, after this epic rescue, any average observer from around the world would think that Chile has one of the safest mining industries in the world.  But they would be wrong.  According to CNN, last year 50 people lost their lives in Chile’s mines.  Even though mining represents 40% of the national income, it is only 1% of the world’s market.  And with this 1%, Chile contributes 8% of the world’s mining accidents.  That is, Chile has a clearly high number of mining accidents.  The government states that this is a problem limited to small companies which lack the resources to prevent them.  CNN also points out that the area where this accident took place only has three government inspectors for 800 mines, adding that this accident should never have happened because the safety issues at the mine were well-known.  The mine had actually been shut down in 2007.  And, one of the first things that the miners did after being rescued was to ask the President to take the necessary measures to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

Nonetheless, the perception is that Chile’s mining industry is excellent in terms of security and, as we all know, perception is for all practical purposes 90% of reality.  And this has been achieved by the Santiago government, apart from having organized a successful rescue mission, through a perfectly executed media show. 

First of all, and prior to their rescue, the authorities provided media training to the miners to teach them how to deal with the media.  Yes, you read it right.  The miners learned about how to deal with the media at 700 meters below the earth’s surface.  Secondly, the government provided full-access coverage to everything that was happening.  This was a decision that was not only intelligent, but also brave because the rescue mission was a success – it could have been a failure.  A failure covered by 2,000 reporters and millions of television viewers as witnesses.

TV cameras were everywhere and, most importantly, all the participants in the rescue cooperated 100% with the coverage.  It was clear that they had been told what to do.  Even the doctors at the hospital where the miners were being treated opened the doors over and over again so that the cameras could better film the miners on their gurneys. 

And when I say that the cameras were everywhere, I mean they were everywhere.  Even, as incredibly as this may seem, inside the mine: 700 meters below the surface.  Viewers could see the miners in real time, as well as the first rescuers who descended to help them.  This allowed for the levels of emotion to reach stratospheric heights and, therefore, had viewers all over the world glued to their television sets and computers to watch the miracle live.

There were also cameras on the miners’ helmets, which allowed us to view their ascent on the Phoenix rescue capsule over the narrow tunnel from the mine to the surface.  Of course, there were cameras following every move of the above-ground rescue equipment and rescuers, of the awaiting families and of Chileans all over the country (and the world) crying as they proudly waved the Chilean flag.  And, naturally, a camera witnessed the first moments when each miner emerged from the Phoenix, hugging and kissing their relatives and immediately after hugging President Piñera, the Mining Minister and their rescuers.  It was impossible to remain unmoved.

If Chile’s government had not been as intelligent and hadn’t provided those images, the level of interest about this story would not have been the same.  Even though all the images were provided by the government and no other cameras were allowed to transmit, the truth is that those images were made available to everyone.  Limiting access to only the government’s cameras is never the ideal situation, because it can be perceived as biased, it is easy to understand that it was impossible to allow 2,000 reporters direct access to the rescue zone.  It really was a total of 2,000 international reporters that traveled to that remote region of Chile to cover this story.  There is a factor of security and distraction that cannot be ignored. 

Everyone lived the odyssey live. The words, the emotions, the hugs, the tears of joy.  Chile was able to create an emotional connection with millions and millions of people all over the globe.  We were all Chileans at that time and we were moved just as if we were witnessing the rescue on site with them.

However, there have been many mining accidents that have been completely ignored by the media. By facilitating coverage, the government was able to take advantage of a golden opportunity to receive support for the rescue operation and reinforce the country’s image as a place where things are done correctly.  The rescue mission has cost between 20 and 30 million dollars, a third of which will be covered by donations.

Everyone, with the possible exception of the mine’s owners, has come out a winner.  The miners were rescued and Chile is admired all over the world.  Such is the case of Laurence Golborne, the Mining Minister, who has an 87% approval rating and is already being touted as a possible successor to President Piñera in the 2013 elections.  

This story teaches us the importance of openness.  Of transparency.  We must help the media to do their job.  Hiding facts and not providing information is the worst thing to do.  Because, among other things, the media always finds out what it needs to find out.

In January 2006, I covered the accident at the Sago mine in West Virginia, USA.  It was an information disaster.  Journalists received information piecemeal, and then to make matters worse we were provided erroneous information.  The authorities even said, mistakenly as it turned out, that 12 miners had survived the explosion.  All the news outlets relayed the news enthusiastically.  After the tense hours of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones, the families began to celebrate the miracle.  However, the information was subsequently refuted.  Only one miner survived.  It is not difficult to imagine the families’ reaction once they found out the news.

I also remember the accident at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Mexico in February 2006.  It was estimated that 65 miners were trapped below ground.  The mining company said that they were 150 meters below the surface.  The accident took place on February 19.  On February 25, the company announced that “there was no chance of any survivors after the methane explosion.”  The next day the authorities announced that the mine would be closed indefinitely.

In Chile there was also great pessimism about the situation with the miners.  On August 22, the Mining Minister said that the possibilities of finding the miners alive were slim.  We have to remember that it wasn’t until 17 days after the accident that contact was made with the miners.  Seventeen days!  However, the authorities, despite the initial pessimism, promised not to give up and they didn’t.  They were true to their word.  And the prize was when the miners were heard from and, after a tense 69 days of wait, all the miners were rescued safe and sound.  All 33 miners.

Without putting into question the Chilean government’s conviction and compromise with the rescue mission, whether or not there was media coverage, does anyone put in doubt that the media’s presence and interest help in similar situations to ensure that full-blown rescue efforts continue?  What would happen in these disasters if no cameras reached the area to explain in images the titanic struggle to save the miners trapped under tons of stones?  What happens is that many times the effort is not as strong and the possibilities of saving those lives are greatly reduced.  In Mexico’s case there was quite a bit of coverage, but it cannot be compared with the Chilean government’s deployment. The Chileans became masters of communication.  The media’s work is essential in this type of situations and the intelligent Chilean government understood this perfectly.  And now, Chile’s image in the world has been incredibly strengthened.

Another very intelligent decision was to train the miners about how to deal with the media.  First of all because of psychological issues, and secondly because of practical matters.

Do you remember the accident in 1972 when a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes?  After another epic story of how to survive in below zero temperatures after they had been given for dead, 16 people survived.  Well, some of those survivors visited the mine in Chile to share with the miners their experiences after being rescued.  To go from being an anonymous miner to being known internationally practically overnight, is not always an easy transition.

The Chilean authorities explained to the miners that there were many reporters waiting for them, that all of them wanted to interview them and that they would be very persistent to get those interviews.  That their lives would be open to scrutiny, for better or worse.  We now even know the names of one of the miners’ mistress.  The training served to at least be a bit more ready for what was to come.

But there is another angle – the money.  The miners made $1,600 a month for their hard work.  Undoubtedly, this rescue will be told in books and movies, and the miners will travel the world telling their stories in person.

The Real Madrid and Manchester soccer teams have invited them to their games.  A Greek mining company has invited them to vacation in Greece’s paradisiacal islands.  And they will get many more invitations, both as prizes and paying them for their attendance.  Some outlets will even pay them a lot of money to interview them.

The miners said that they reached an agreement among themselves to share all their earnings from sharing their experiences about the accident.  Even if this does finally happen, who will make the most money?  Obviously, the person who best knows how to explain what happened, who best articulates the story, the one who communicates the most.  That person will be the one to travel and give speeches, that person will be preferred by television networks for interviews.  Even if the training they received was, for obvious reasons, very basic, knowing just a little better how to effectively communicate a message is something that can make a fundamental difference in the lives of the miners.  If they are skillful, they will never have to work another day in their lives.

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