Archive for the ‘Crisis communication’ Category

Clean Slate

April 12, 2012

Our firm specializes in crisis management and training spokespersons to efficiently convey their message to the media, or Media Training. However, if the Miami Marlins baseball team called on us to manage the crisis brought about by their manager, Ozzie Guillén, our answer would have to be: “Up till now you have handled the situation poorly. Regardless, we’re sorry but this situation is unfixable. The only solution is to clean the slate and, also, do it as quickly as possible.”

For those who may not be aware of it, Ozzie Guillén, a 48 year old US citizen born in Venezuela, told Time Magazine that “I love Fidel Castro… I respect Fidel Castro, you know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that… is still here.” Guillén also used a profanity that was most inappropriate for someone who not only represents a professional sports franchise but also a city: Miami.

We’re in a country where freedom of speech is respected. Anyone has the right to say his or her opinion and defend it in public. However, it’s clear that praising Fidel Castro in a city like Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora, doesn’t precisely show great sensibility towards the city’s Cuban community.

On the other hand, just like Guillén can have an opinion, that’s also a right of Miami’s Cuban community. Especially if we take into account that it is the citizens of Miami who buy tickets to see the Marlins play. And that doesn’t take into account the $487 million in public funds spent to build their stadium which, likewise, were paid by taxpayers. Paradoxically, a stadium located in the very heart of Little Havana, one of the most emblematic places for Cuban exiles.

The Marlin organization distanced itself from his comments and suspended Guillén for five games, adding that his salary for those days would be donated to charitable organizations. Guillén held a press conference where he apologized and said that his comments were misunderstood.

Time Magazine isn’t a second-rate publication. It is one of the most important media organizations in the world. I just can’t believe that it’s reporters would publish something like this, knowing the controversy it would stir-up, if they didn’t have concrete proof of these having been Guillén’s exact comments. If they had distorted the manager’s comments, I assume that Time would be sued for millions of dollars for seriously damaging Guillén’s image and career.

In any crisis where an organization or a person have made a mistake, asking for forgiveness is the first step to beginning to resolve the crisis. However, in this case, I don’t think it will solve anything. First of all, Guillén apologized but never rectified his opinion of Castro. However, even if he said today that Castro is a dictator, his words would probably not be seen as credible by Miami’s Cuban community. They’d likely be perceived as an attempt to hold on to his job and his $10 million salary. Secondly, his body language during the press conference didn’t seem to match with what he was saying. It’s important to remember that 80% of someone’s credibility is conveyed by their body language and not the actual message.

On the other hand, the sanction imposed by the Marlins is probably hurting rather than helping them. It seems clear that Guillén has lost the Cuban community’s support, a fundamental fan base for the team. The longer they take to decide to get rid of this manager, the more damage it will do to their relationship with this Cuban community. Guillén has every right to give his opinion and the Marlins also have every right to fire him if they realize that they have lost the support of the community they represent.

 In circumstances such as this one, Media Training or crisis management have very limited value. Guillén also faces another problem because now he can’t make anybody happy. Not Miami’s Cuban community nor Fidel Castro’s supporters. The first because he offended them and the others because of his attempt to take back what he said.

Save a penny, lose a dollar

April 23, 2011

It has been a year since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people lost their lives and five million barrels of oil spilled in the ocean, the worst such accident in US history.

From a public relations point of view, it is surprising that corporations as important as BP reacted in such an inadequate way to the disaster. In fact, BP’s behavior is now the point of reference for what NOT to do during a crisis.

Prior to the accident, BP’s then CEO, Tony Hayward, had reduced the company’s PR budget, following the advice of consultants who obviously were not qualified to make such a recommendation. And much less in light of the coming crisis. The result was enormous damage to BP’s reputation and, therefore, also to its bottom line. By the way, Hayward lost his job as CEO as a consequence of his handling of the crisis.

A corporation which in 2009 earned 14 billion dollars started to save money in an area as vital to them as public affairs and in the end the paid for their mistake. As the saying goes, save a penny, lose a dollar.

A decision that was not only irresponsible but also lacked intelligence; because an oil company definitely knows that, sooner or later, an accident such as this can happen. And when it does, it must have a first-rate public relations team that is always ready to deal immediately and efficiently with such a crisis. Even though any corporation or government can face any type of crisis, this is true for companies that deal with especially risky fields such as airlines and chemical companies. It’s only a matter of time before an accident happens, never mind a terrorist attack. And if the crisis is not dealt with satisfactorily, it could lead to the end of the business.

That is why it’s so surprising that a corporation as prestigious as BP could be so shortsighted.

The other incident that, unfortunately, reminds us about the total lack of preparation when facing catastrophes is what happened in Japan.

I have visited Japan several times. I have dealt professionally with the Japanese and Japanese businessmen and women. The last thing that you’d imagine is that a country as organized and professional as Japan would not be ready for something that is totally predictable.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake prone countries. In that area, obviously, the earthquakes cause tsunamis, which is also to be expected. And is anyone surprised about the potential danger that a nuclear accident could bring about? The Japanese government and the company that owns the nuclear plant should have been ready for all these situations, but it’s obvious they were not. Something that is truly unforgivable because we’re talking about events during which the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at risk.

It is true that the catastrophe was beyond what anyone could have imagined and that when something like that happens it’s hard to react. There is a collective psychological shock. However, I must state again, we are talking about situations that are truly predictable.

In addition to the structural and human disasters, there was an information one. There was a total void of reliable and precise information. The Japanese government completely failed when the population most needed this information to be able to make potentially life or death decisions.

No one knew how to deal with the media, what information to share, which recommendations to make. The information the public was getting was incomplete, half-truths or totally wrong. The Japanese media would say something and the international media would report something totally different. The nuclear plant owners would state something and independent experts would immediately deny it. The Japanese government would put out a press release and the US government would contradict it. And to this we must add the traditional skepticism that
many Japanese have regarding what many national companies say, because they’re well known for their lack of transparency. The result was a total information chaos which was aggravated by an environment of extreme physical and emotional tension. A perfect storm.

I know people who have family in the affected area in Japan. They tell me that no one knew the real security perimeter surrounding the nuclear plant, what they needed to do, where to find shelter or where to find uncontaminated water or food. This is not precisely the image that most have of a country such as Japan.

What happened? Didn’t the Japanese government have a crisis management plan in place for situations such as this, which are, once again, completely predictable? And if they had it, why wasn’t it put in place? Didn’t the Japanese government train its key personnel so they would know how to handle the media, known as media training, especially during a crisis? And if they did get the training, why did they act in a way that put the population in such danger?

How is it possible that multimillion dollar corporations such as BP or first-world governments such as Japan’s could be so poorly prepared for these types of situations? How is it possible that they could have made a strategic mistake of such magnitude?

Without a doubt, in disasters such as these the first priority for a government or corporation should be the physical security of people and the environment. However, during these events, the flow of reliable and correct information is
not secondary but also a priority because it directly impacts the security of the population and the environment. During a catastrophe, knowing how to communicate effectively saves lives.

Unfortunately, more accidents or natural disasters are in our future. We will see if BP and the Japanese government, as well as other institutions and businesses have learned from these mistakes or history will repeat itself.

Tucson: successful crisis management

January 17, 2011

When you read an editorial in The Washington Post penned by Senator John McCain and titled “Mr. Obama’s admirable speech,” it’s clear that the speech had to be truly memorable. Senator McCain was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee during the recent presidential elections.  Barack Obama’s opponent on the ballot. In his editorial, McCain writes about President Obama’s speech during the services in honor of the victims at the shootout in Tucson, Arizona, and among other comments, states that Barack Obama is “a patriot.”

The President’s objective was for his speech to unite the country after the tragedy in Tucson. It is a president’s duty to do so in times like these.  And the general consensus was that he accomplished it.

Mr. Obama criticized the atmosphere of political verbal hostility in Washington. He did this because immediately after the shooting, the tense political climate was blamed for the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson.

Many leaders, including the President, reiterated the need to return to a political discourse where active and passionate dissent can coexist within a framework of civility.

I think that this climate of political attacks and counterattacks is by no means a monopoly of US politics.  This happens in each and every one of the countries I have covered as a reporter or lived in.  Aggressive dissent is inherent to politics.  And actually, the danger would be to not have this type of lively debate, because it would mean the absence of democracy.

Fortunately, even though we all remember painful exceptions, in the United States these differences are solved at the ballot box. Tucson was an exception. It isn’t even clear whether it was an attempt at a political assassination against a congresswoman because of ideological reasons or simply the work of a disturbed individual who fixated on her as he could have done on any other person for whatever reason.  All the experts agree that the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, has severe mental problems.  In fact, research by the US Secret Service state that the great majority of the so-called “political assassinations” in this country have nothing to do with politics. After many interviews with people who have attempted, with and without success, against the lives of political leaders, the studies conclude that the majority of the assailants are mentally ill and that this is the true reason behind the attacks. Not political dissent.

Speaking from a strictly communications point of view, it is clear to me that this crisis was managed masterfully by everyone.

The country was glued to television screens for days to find out every detail about the situation. The tragedy had a real impact on the nation.  Each and every one of the victims was an irreplaceable loss, but that of young Christina-Taylor Green especially touched the hearts of Americans. A nine year old girl born, paradoxically, on September 11, 2001.  The day of the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. A young girl interested in politics who wanted to see and listen to her congresswoman in person.

The President’s task to unite the nation with his speech was not an easy one due to the divisive political climate to which I referred earlier. However, not only did he do this well, he also managed the crisis masterfully.

The President reacted immediately to the news with a press release.  Later, he spoke on television to offer his condolences to the victims’ families and to wish a speedy recovery to the wounded. He also asked the FBI director to travel to Arizona to lead the investigation and offered all the federal government resources needed to handle the matter. His next step was to personally travel with the First Lady to Tucson to attend the commemoration for the victims. At every step we witnessed a President in touch and who reflected the country’s pain.

The Republican political opposition also reacted in a non-partisan way, focusing on what was important, the victims, and setting aside party-line disagreements. An example of this is Senator McCain’s editorial, which was interpreted as a first-rate example of elegance, class, responsibility and political leadership by the Republican senator.

Someone whose reaction to the tragedy did cause disagreement was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  The former governor of Alaska, in a video message posted on her Facebook page, used a term with historic anti-Semitic meaning which, undoubtedly, distracted her audience away from her intended message. Others also criticized her for talking too much about politics instead of the victims.  

In the past she has been accused of creating a political atmosphere that breeds confrontation in places such as Arizona. National political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, reiterated that the only person responsible for a tragedy of such magnitude was the person who pulled the trigger.

Many of Palin’s defenders say that she didn’t understand the context of the expression she used.  However, few people understand how none of her advisors expressed concern about it.  This has added fuel to the fire for people who accuse her of not having the necessary education to be president.

Nevertheless, the crisis was, in general, very well managed by everyone.

The President’s behavior was praised by even his most ferocious Republican critics. The Republican opposition was praised by the Democrats.  Politicians displayed a unity seldom seen in Washington.  They did not focus on themselves but on the tragedy and encouraged a somewhat more respectful political discourse.

Pro-gun activists, despite the tragedy, didn’t lose any ground. In fact, only a few days after the shooting, a gun show in Arizona was attended by thousands of people.  They insist that the weapons are not the problem and that any citizen is constitutionally entitled to have them. According to them, the problem is managing criminals and the mentally unstable so that they don’t have access to the weapons. Even though the subject was addressed during media coverage of the tragedy, the shooting didn’t really bring about a deep national debate about the use of weapons in the United States.  Without doubt, the pro-gun groups knew how to successfully deal with this situation. They stated their position, but respecting the victims’ suffering. They were able to prevent a popular upswell against them which could lead to federal legislation to significantly affect their interests.

Another group that successfully managed the situation was that of the doctors dealing with the tragedy. They were constantly available, gave frequent updates about the wounded, communicated effectively and in a clear manner about the medical procedures and demonstrated obvious empathy for the suffering of the families. They handled themselves with the utmost professionalism in a situation that was physically and mentally exhausting.  And in front of hundreds of journalists from all over the world.

This highlights that one of the most important things to do to successfully manage any crisis is to be prepared for it before it happens. The doctors and the hospital, without a doubt, did it.  Something like this can, unfortunately, happen at any time and the ability to communicate effectively cannot be improvised.

This is an example of how well a crisis has been managed, but there is a long list of crises that were extremely poorly managed on every level and which have very negatively impacted the reputation of not only those who were directly involved in it but also, for example, political leaders at the highest levels. If they study closely the reactions in and about Tucson, they will surely be better prepared for future crises, which, will undoubtedly have to face in the future.

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

October 16, 2010

 “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.

Journalism on Life Support

July 24, 2010

With a few honorable exceptions, in my opinion, journalism is clearly declining.  Every day it becomes less relevant when it comes to exercising its primary function as an independent mechanism of oversight and investigation of the government and organizations regarding issues of vital importance for our society.  The latest example is the surreal case of Shirley Sherrod.

For openers, it is surreal because President Obama called her twice, couldn’t reach her and she didn’t even return his call until the following day.  What?  What do you mean?  THE President Obama?  The one that world leaders constantly court and go through hoops to hold fleeting meetings with at the White House?  Yes, the very same.  Just like you have read.  And when he was finally able to speak with her, it was to apologize.  And this is just the latest of the twists in this story of journalism-fiction.

What could have led to this Presidential apology?  Mrs. Sherrod was an employee of the US Department of Agriculture.  This past March 27, Sherrod made a speech at an event of the NAACP, an organization that defends the civil rights of minorities in the United States.  A few days ago, a blogger and conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, uploaded on YouTube a video clip of Mrs. Sherrod’s remarks.

On the video, she admitted that 24 years ago she hesitated about whether or not to help a white farmer who came to her for assistance to save his farm.  The reason?  He was White.  At the time, Sherrod worked in the south of the United States for a non-profit agency established to help African-American farmers.  Mrs. Sherrod is African-American.

When the media got a hold of the video, all hell broke loose.  A strange and schizophrenic virus took over all media outlets, the Administration, as well as the public.  A first year journalism student would have behaved in a more professional, ethical and responsible manner than the reporters who covered this story.

Especially, the conservative media began to attack Sherrod furiously, accusing her of being a racist.  Like an out-of-control forest fire, the video spread throughout the Internet and the attacks increased, culminating in the Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to fire Mrs. Sherrod.  Some commentators have said that the White House responded so quickly and forcefully out of fear that the Administration of an African-American president would be accused of racism against Whites.

There’s a small problem.  It happens that the video uploaded to YouTube was a specifically edited clip of what Mrs. Sherrod said during the NAACP event.  The real story told by Sherrod was the complete opposite:  one of redemption and racial reconciliation.

At the event, Sherrod acknowledged her previously held prejudices, her inner struggles and stated that she finally decided that she and the farmer were human beings and that there were no differences between them.  She not only helped the White farmer to save his farm but a long-lasting friendship grew from their encounter.  The farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family confirmed that everything that Mrs. Sherrod said was true.  That is, the exact opposite of the image that the world built of Mrs. Sherrod was real.  However, there she was: fired from her job, slandered and constantly criticized by one and all.

Afterwards, the conservative blogger acknowledged that the video he uploaded to YouTube was actually an edited version of the speech.  According to him, the people who gave it to him never told him that the video was made up of selected clips.  Whether or not this is true, the damage was already done and journalism in general suffered a serious setback.  Others accuse the blogger of knowing exactly what he was uploading and that he did it anyway to create a controversy that attacked the Obama Administration and promote his blog.

Did no one verify to make sure that the story and the accusations were true? Where did journalistic ethics go? Where are objectivity, the sense of information equity and justice?  Did nobody bother to request a complete copy of the speech to find out if the quotes reflected accurately the spirit of what was said?  Or was it that, just like it happened, the quotes were taken out of context?  Did anyone find someone who actually attended the event to confirm the authenticity of the remarks?  Did anyone check with a variety of sources to verify the information? Did an experienced editor or producer review the story before printing or airing it? Was nobody suspicious that an organization such as the NAACP, which is on the forefront of calls for social harmony, would invite a supposedly racist speaker to their event? Did this simple fact not raise the alarm?  Did anyone bother to speak with Mrs. Sherrod to allow her to defend herself? Did anyone demand that the story not be made public until all the information had been verified, to ensure that irreparable damage to her reputation was not made if the accusations were not true? My goodness, I could go on and on all day writing this type of questions.  These are the basic tenets of journalism.

However, as I mentioned previously, this situation goes further.  How could the Obama Administration fire someone without verifying that the accusations were true, basing this decision only on press reports?  Is it that those in the government do not know that just because something is published by the media it is not necessarily true?  Then, is it true that, as some people insist, President Obama was actually born in Kenya and that instead of being a Christian is actually a Muslim?  Is it true then that Elvis Presley was having breakfast this morning in Las Vegas? And, how is it possible that the general population can also let itself be influenced in such a manner by the media without displaying the least interest in finding out whether or not this story was true?  Did anyone say, “Wait a minute, is this true? Could someone be making too big a deal out of this?  Couldn’t these be politically motivated falsities?  Has she been given the opportunity to defend herself?”?  No, no one said anything and the life of a woman who has fought during decades on behalf of others’ civil rights, regardless of their skin color, radically changed in a matter of days.  Suddenly, the entire country saw her as a racist.

When everyone finally realized the enormity of the mistake they had made, a great feeling of collective guilt took over.  The Secretary of Agriculture apologized during a press conference and offered her another job.  Some of news outlets also apologized and President Obama himself called her to apologize on behalf of his Administration.

However, once again, this case goes beyond this one situation affecting Mrs. Sherrod.  These are the consequences of what we see in journalism nowadays.  On the one hand, newspapers, television and radio stations fire a large number of experienced journalists to replace them with recently graduated one who are paid a third of the fired journalists’ salaries.  However, they clearly have no experience.  News bureaus have less and less true professional journalists on staff and those who are still around have an enormous amount of work.  They cannot properly do their job.  It is not their fault.  Journalists nowadays have to do the work of two or three people, support the online side of the news, as well as sometimes film and edit the stories they cover.  It is impossible to deliver good, solid work as a journalist under these conditions.

On the other hand, there is the emergence of the so-called blogosphere, which isn’t necessarily journalism.  Many times it is its very opposite.  A weird world where we come across true professionals, but also an army of lunatics and people without the most basic knowledge of issues or journalism but who sell themselves as “serious” journalists.  That, of course, without including the throng of crazed political activists who want to make themselves pass for journalists and don’t have a clue about what they’re writing about.  The result is that you can come across anything on the Web, but readers don’t always know or can’t distinguish between good information and blatant propaganda.

Media outlets always want to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to reporting news.  It is the nature of the business.  To be first.  However, with the arrival of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the struggle is now down to beating the competition by mere seconds.  The pressure to be first is very strong and, as we can see from this example, the right steps are not always taken before publishing or going on air with a story.  Speed trumps the truth.

The media needs to be an institution where respected journalists and professionals come together and are able to inform the nation in an independent way. People who dedicate their lives to investigate and report the news objectively and truthfully to their readers, viewers, and listeners.  They have to be the point of reference for the public, where they can confidently go to get the news.  The media cannot be the circus sideshow that we just saw with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have profound admiration for journalists who embrace and take seriously their profession.  They are vital to our society.  A real democracy cannot function without a strong, independent, truthful, qualified and brave media.  In spite of this, I think that journalists who are not in this group do real damage to our society and we have to protect ourselves from them.

Many will view this episode as anecdotal, but the problem is that it isn’t.  It represents a very dangerous tendency.  Do you remember the Iraq War?  Do you remember the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly being hidden in Iraq?  The media did a terrible job in its coverage prior to the war.  And what can be said about the current economic crisis?  How is it possible that financial sector journalists didn’t investigate the problem that was brewing?  Now we know that more than a few predicted something was going to happen, but where were those reporters to talk about these concerns, about the imminent danger of a financial catastrophe?  Surely, due to the decrease in newsroom budgets, these reporters were covering several stories a day and didn’t have the time to cover any of them properly.

From my vantage point, there are only a handful of news media outlets with the financial resources and professional staff to truly make a difference in today’s media world.  Most journalists are doing the work of several people or are deeply enmeshed in looking for the daily irrelevant scandal to increase viewership, ratings, and the number of newspapers or magazines sold.  Many bloggers don’t even care if what they write is true or a lie.  Everything is geared to creating a scandal to get the most hits on their page.  And with that, to increase their notoriety.  Fame.  Others, with political motivations, whether on the right or left, don’t even care about that; their concern is to politically hurt their opponents.  Again, without caring if their accusations are true or merely made-up.  As you well know, a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

All of this is truly dangerous for our democracy and for the overall well-being of our society.  Crises bring about serious economic problems for millions of families.  Wars bring about death and enormous debt.  The public has a right to be well-informed to be able to make important decisions.  Journalism’s mission is to provide this information.  It has always been said that journalism “informs, educates, and entertains.”  From my point of view, today’s journalism informs very little, educates even less, and entertains us more and more every day.

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The White House Bubble

May 30, 2010

Every president is a victim of it.  Each one, sometime during their Administration, hears that he has locked himself in “the White House bubble.”  This means that, immersed in his daily work, spending most of his time isolated in the Executive Mansion, he has distanced himself from the country’s realities.  That he doesn’t understand what’s happening on Main Street.  That he doesn’t understand any longer the daily concerns of the common citizens. These criticisms are now aimed at President Obama.  The reason?  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House is on the defensive regarding this issue.  During the first weeks of the crisis, the polls stated that the public had decided on a clear responsible party for the disaster, British Petroleum (BP), and approved of the way the government was handling the situation.  However, opinions have been changing substantially since then and the confidence on the Administration has fallen significantly.

Many pundits criticized President Obama for, apparently, not giving the crisis the importance it merits from the very beginning.  The April 20 incident has already become the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. 

The President responded by holding a press conference on May 27 and said that his Administration has always led the response to the crisis and that those who doubted this, simply “don’t know the facts.”

However, even well-known Democratic activists such as James Carville, who lives in the affected area, have directly confronted the White House, accusing it of responding to the crisis too slowly.  Carville even added that if the crisis had taken place on the coasts of California or on the beaches near the Washington, DC area, the response would have been completely different:  quick, efficient, forceful, well-coordinated.  Carville, a key advisor during the Clinton Administration, has grown more aggressive in his critique of the way the White House is managing the situation.  And he is doing this publicly, completely aware of the resentment that he is creating in the Administration.  Still, Carville isn’t the only one.  Louisiana’s Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, also stated “the President has not been as visible as he should have been on this and he is going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately.”

The Republicans state that if this had happened to former President George W. Bush, rather than to President Obama, the Democrats would be criticizing him mercilessly 24-hours a day.  They would accuse him of incompetence and of not being actively involved in the crisis because of his ties to the oil industry.

During the press conference President Obama insisted that this is a clear priority for his Administration and that from the onset they have devoted the necessary experts and resources to solve the oil spill as fast as possible.  According to him, this situation is first on his mind when he wakes and last when falling asleep.

We won’t put in question the President’s statements regarding his efforts, but the truth is that many people think that the government has not done enough and that they have let BP take the lead in dealing with such an important issue.  These people qualify the spill as a national crisis and add that, therefore, the government should clearly have a leadership role and attitude.  According to them, this leadership has either not been in place or has not been properly communicated to the American people.  And as we all know, in politics perception is 90 percent of reality.

I think that the President’s press conference took place too late.  It was not proactive but reactive.  I believe that if President Obama immediately named US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to be in charge of the Federal response to the disaster, from the beginning Allen should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with BP’s representatives during the daily press conferences.  This also applies to the local and state authorities.  But the US public only saw one person:  the BP spokesperson.  I think that the President cannot hold a press conference without being informed that a key player in the situation had been fired or had resigned.  This person is Elizabeth Birnbaum, the former director of the Minerals Management Service, an executive who answered to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. This is the very government agency that President Obama criticized for its responsibility in allowing the oil industry to have improper influence in the environmental control area and security regarding oil rig accidents.

On Friday, May 28, the President once again to the affected zone to witness the effects of the disaster.  The government now asserts that instead of the five thousand barrels of oil it had previously stated were being spilled, the real number is 19 thousand.

President Obama went to one of the beaches suffering the effects of the crisis and later met with the leaders in charge of fighting the spill.  After the meeting, he left Louisiana.  He left without even speaking with the fishermen and citizens of the area.  Those clearly most directly affected by the disaster.  It was a flyover type of trip.  Taking into account the criticism, right or wrong, regarding his behavior up to then, why not take advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend to stay a couple of days in the area and become more deeply familiarized with the situation where it is happening?  Why not stay to listen to first-hand accounts from the victims?  Why not stay and convey the clear message that he doesn’t have a priority more important than this one?  I think that it was a great lost opportunity for the President and that this has highlighted even more Louisiana’s belief that Washington truly doesn’t understand what this situation means to the state.  A state already very resentful with the federal government for its response to Katrina.

President Obama was universally praised for being a master in his relations with the media during the presidential campaign.  He is undoubtedly a great communicator.  He’s also has left his mark in history by being the first who knew how to mobilize massive popular support for his campaign through social media networks.  Something that enabled him to raise more money than any other presidential campaign in history with an average contribution of $100 or less.  He also has shown that he is not afraid to “grab the bull by the horns.”  In just a year he has led the fight for health care reform, financial reform, and significant economic stimulus packages.

President Obama said in Louisiana that he has tripled the aid to deal with the oil spill.  He has even given his White House phone number to the local community authorities so that they can call him directly if something that has been promised is not taken care of.  His advisors confirm that he is constantly briefed about everything that is happening and that stopping the oil spill is one of his main priorities.  That this issue takes up many hours of his day.

Nevertheless, the truth is that the ongoing perception is that there hasn’t been enough presidential leadership on this matter.  To this day, many people still don’t know who is really in charge of this crisis.  Yes, the President stated that he is ultimately responsible, but, who is responsible on a day-to-day basis?  BP? The Coast Guard admiral?  The governor of Louisiana? The local authorities?  Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar?  Someone in Washington? Who?  I, who have been following this situation closely since it began, must admit that I have no idea.  The Administration has yet to put forth a face that we can all identify as the person responsible for the daily management of the crisis.  Something fundamental in terms of public perception is that someone specific is designated as being in charge.

And that it’s not enough to do things, but that you must know how to efficiently communicate what is being done.  It is difficult to understand how an Administration such as this one, so aware of the importance of public opinion, has allowed for this perception to spread regarding an issue as important as this one.  Now, in addition to solving the problem, they will have to communicate extremely well everything being done to prevent that this ecological disaster also becomes a political one for the White House.

BP: PR disaster

May 22, 2010

I was waiting in line to get my daily coffee at my neighborhood Giant Food’s Starbucks.  The barista told the customer in line ahead of me that Giant has a new agreement with Shell Oil – for every so many dollars you spend at Giant, you can get free gas at Shell.  The man laughed and said that in a very short while it won’t be necessary to go to the gas station to buy gas – the only thing that we’ll have to do is go to the Virginia shore (the state where I live) with a pail to get the oil from the British Petroleum (BP) spill.  He then added, rather upset, “I will never buy gas from BP.”  The Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana, where the spill happened, are more than a thousand miles away from Virginia.

It’s not a joke.  BP has had a real public relations disaster with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  They’re already paying for it, but the final tab could be even higher.  The reaction of my fellow shopper at Giant is a perfect example.

BP earns two billion dollars a month.  During the first three months of 2010, its profits were six billion dollars.  It begs the question, then:  how is it possible that a corporation as powerful and with so many resources could manage so poorly the escalating public relations situation brought about by this ecologic disaster.

This catastrophe will be studied in years to come as what not to do during a crisis.

The US is not North Korea.  In the US it is impossible to cover up the information regarding the accident as well as BP’s response to it.  Sooner or later, the truth will come out.  The Congress is already on the hunt.  And if the truth will ultimately come out, why not be open from the beginning and demonstrate an image of total transparency?  As those of us who live in Washington well know, the story that the press is pursuing is not the spill itself but the possible cover-up by BP.  Something that not only has brought about a public relations nightmare, but possibly criminal charges.

The first lesson learned when dealing with this type of crisis is the paramount importance of transparency and of letting people know what is going on.  Trying to cover things up is the worst thing that can be done.  As I said before, in the end, no matter what, everything will come out in the open and if the company has not been completely transparent and has covered up important information, the public will be left with the worst opinion possible about it.

It took BP 23 days to give the press a 30 second-long video clip of the spewing oil well deep in the Gulf of Mexico.  This, despite the fact that BP had underwater cameras that recorded everything that was going on round-the-clock.  The media criticized them harshly.  BP then demanded that volunteers that would be helping to clean-up the spill sign a document absolving BP of any responsibility from any health-related damages brought about their clean-up work. Let’s see:  first, oil spills on US waters and then the volunteers helping to clean this mess up are prohibited from suing BP for any damages?  The press was up in arms and this led to BP retroactively cancelling the document.   BP’s president vowed to remain in the US until the situation was resolved.  However, according to the British press, and in spite of the seriousness of the matter, he returned to London to attend a business meeting and celebrate his birthday.  His message is clear:  I have other more important things to do than being in the US to personally supervise the clean-up and closing of the oil well.  The press, as was expected, pounded on him.  He also had stated during an interview that the ecological damage from the oil spill would be “modest.”  Nowadays we can see the oil slicked waters off Louisiana’s coast.  The damage can’t be determined yet, but at least for those living and suffering its effects on a daily basis do not deem it to be “modest.”  As I write this article, experts estimate that six million gallons of oil have already been spilled in the Gulf.  Initially, BP stated that five thousand barrels of oil were being spilled every day, but did not allow any verification of this number by independent scientists.  Now, many scientists state that the amount of oil spilled is much larger than BP’s estimates.  Some reporters have stated that BP did not give them access to the video of oil spilling from the well so that independent experts couldn’t refute BP’s statements regarding the five thousand daily barrels.

The US government hasn’t done a very good job either.  This isn’t just BP’s problem; it’s a national problem.  Many can’t understand why the government hasn’t been more proactive in the process to stop the flow of oil, instead of letting BP take the lead.  This crisis could also prove to be very costly for the Obama Administration.

We all know that accidents are inevitable.  The airline industry, for example, trains constantly about how to deal with the crisis that will be brought about when one of its airplanes, unfortunately, is involved in an accident.  This might never happen, but an airline has to assume that, sooner or later, some type of accident will take place.  These companies are ready for these crises because it is a given to do so.  One of the basic principles of these crises, among many others, is the vital need for transparency about what has happened.  There are human lives at stake, as was the case with BP.  Eleven workers died during the explosion on the oil platform.  Nothing can be hidden.  This situation is even worse because of the ecological damage brought about by the oil spill.  It is important to be proactive and say what is happening before the press does it for you.

Oil companies also know that accidents are inevitable in their line of work.  What happened to BP?  Did they not remember what happened after the Exxon Valdez accident?  Didn’t they get trained to deal with a crisis?  Did they not get trained to deal with the media in case of a crisis?  And if they did, how is it possible that their behavior has been so terrible?  For many companies, whether or not they have received crisis communication training, the first and natural reaction is to not share information.  However, the only thing that this causes is even more damages.  This is precisely why crisis communication training is so important.

This accident has caused a lot of damage to BP, but the effects to its public image are going to be even worse.  I am afraid that my fellow coffee drinker at Starbucks is not the only one who will stop buying gas at BP.  I am sure that the other oil companies have paid close attention to what has happened.  After all, there are another four thousand oil wells just in the Gulf of Mexico – 30% of US oil comes from them.  It’s only a matter of time before another accident takes place.  Will the next oil company make the same mistakes as BP?

Did the Chilean government communicate well during this tragedy?

February 28, 2010

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.

Failure to Communicate in Haiti

January 20, 2010

Communicating poorly can have catastrophic results as we have clearly seen during the recent tragic events in Haiti.  The victims of the devastating earthquake have lived the worst moments of this drama, without information regarding what they could do or where to find the international aid being made available.

A minimum of three million of Haiti’s nine million inhabitants have been affected by the earthquake.  The government states that at least 80,000 have died, while other sources claim that the number will rise to 200,000.  The number of wounded, those in shock, orphans and those still missing is not yet known.

President René Préval, who miraculously survived the destruction of the presidential palace, had to move through a capital city in chaos riding on a small motorcycle to survey the extent of the devastation.  During the first hours after the earthquake, Préval had no even idea about which members of his cabinet had survived.  Since the buildings that housed the government ministries had been destroyed, the cabinet is working out of a small police station.  In a nation with such a limited government structure due to a lack of resources, the earthquake completely vanished its already poor ability to react when dealing with such a disaster.  It is understandable that when faced with such a chaotic situation the government would feel overcome by circumstances and become paralyzed.  However, on the other hand, and precisely because of the glaring lack of resources, the president should have given a clear priority to communication.  Not only to convey the idea that there was a government that was trying to regain control of the situation, but especially, to let the population know what to do during such a delicate situation.  The nation, in a crisis situation, always looks for effective and quick action from its leaders.

The Haitian media reports that during the first seven days after the earthquake not one member of the government addressed the nation.  It adds that there wasn’t even one press conference by any government leader.  Millions of Haitians, rich and poor, anxiously awaited guidance from their leaders, but the only thing they encountered was silence.  This doesn’t mean that the nation’s leaders were doing nothing.  Many were trying to coordinate the urgent arrival of international aid as well as visiting areas affected by the earthquake.  However, a half hour on the radio would have broadcast the message that Haitians so much needed to hear in a more effective way than visiting  a dozen locations every day.  Radio is widely listened to in Haiti and several radio stations were on the air.

Mario Viau, owner of Signal FM, an important local radio station, said that he sent his employees on a mission to find any government representative to address the nation from its studios.  He explains that he did it in light of the total official silence.  He failed.  Afterwards, on the air, he appealed to the government to send a spokesperson to his studios to explain basic facts, such as what should be done to find a missing relative or what to do with bodies that had not been picked up yet from the streets.  The only thing he received was a recording from the president asking for calm.  “We didn’t feel like we had a government,” said Viau to The Washington Post.

Communicating is always important, but in times such as this it is crucial.  This lack of communication made the tragedy even worse.  Naming a spokesperson and ensuring that there is a constant flow of information is vital.  Letting the population know which hospitals are open, where to find international aid.  There are hundreds of questions that require an immediate answer.  It is, literally, a matter of life and death.  It is almost unthinkable that a government, even when immersed in such a serious crisis and with such few resources at its disposition, couldn’t understand how fundamental it is to keep the information flow going.  It is imperative to be prepared for a crisis and to execute a previously established crisis management plan when these crises arise.  There is no need to improvise.

The first rule of any crisis is to communicate.  To be proactive.  To have an up-to-date list of media contacts and put them to maximum use.  The Haitian government has been accused of focusing its efforts in communicating with the international community to be able to obtain assistance.  This is undoubtedly essential during a crisis, but informing the population is just as important: they are the victims.