Fires in Greece, Crisis Communication and a serious example from Portugal on synergistic communication and the power of networks

In recent debates on PRConversations about the level of strategic practice of PR, the value of licensing, the role of active professional associations or even the misguided conceptions about lobby, I must confess I couldn’t bring much positive experience from Portugal unless that great advantage that lies in the fact that we can still do things from scratch and try to learn from the best examples all over the world. So now I want to share with you an example that should probably be in a case-study collection about the best of PR in Portugal (at least I would like to think that way)…

At least most of readers in Europe must be aware of the gigantic tragedy going on in Greece because of tremendous fires of yet unknown origins, but with strong suspicious of set fires. As they where increasing, these fires have also set a political crisis upon a highly criticised Government facing upcoming anticipated elections. But, as this NYTimes article shows, there are sufficient angles to write stories able to touch people from pretty much everywhere in the world. As Portugal is, according to reports by our Government, the southern European country with the highest number or registered fires (or at least of situations that mobilize the civil protection forces) between 1980 and 2005, having had 10 times more fires than Greece in that period, I thought this was worth writing about.

Yes, we suffered a lot from the blazes, from a changed climate and from bad coordination of civil forces by bad politicians and decision makers but some got the lesson. Last year the total burnt area decreased some 78% with the civil society playing an active role in this and this year we have reasons to be even more confident thanks to the power of public relations.

It all starts as a group of companies recently decided to act against fires after a couple of years of tremendous fights against devastating blazes. The “Companies against Fire” Movement (ECO Movement) was set up by a group of 23 major companies in Portugal and started based on the belief that the most important asset that these companies could bring to this cause was their communication networks. The group of companies includes the most important retailers, banks, the Portuguese post, insurance companies, consumer goods, paper producers and media companies among others. Some printed messages in shopping bags; others printed them on sugar packs served with coffee but all had the common purpose to reduce the estimated one third of human related fires, half of which are due to negligent behaviour. The movement started only recently and the impact of its actions is not yet known. But the fact is that the messages are going through and, believe it or not, the actual number of fires in 2007 is not even near the usual in Portugal for this time of year.

This movement of companies is coordinating directly with Civil Protection Authorities and has also donated goods and services that range from bicycles to jeeps, from computers to satellite mobile communication systems and even special software to coordinate the fire fighting resources.

From the PR point of view, this movement is not set on a highly visible media relations strategy but rather on an effective number of direct communication actions. It does have a representative with a very high profile (a former CEO of Portugal’s biggest company) to gather goodwill but hardly to be considered as a typical hire-a-celebrity-to-give-the-face-for-the-cause kind of campaign. All communication efforts are synergistic and this is what makes the network so powerful. Each of the involved companies’ acts as a multiplier of the messages and the Government (mainly Internal Affairs and Agricultural ministries) thanks them a lot because they are actually saving a lot of public money and showing a sign of a strong civil society.

From our professional point of view, I would like to consider that these companies’ public relations are showing a tremendous way to add value to society and protect the common good. Companies are acting together for a specific target and they are putting the best of them at the service of this cause. I just wonder if it would work the same for other causes like reduce risk behaviours that generate road accidents, reduce corruption behaviours and other kind of mass phenomena. I also wonder how to better describe this: corporate diplomacy, public relations, corporate social investment or simply communication in the public interest….

Your opinions?

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4 Replies to “Fires in Greece, Crisis Communication and a serious example from Portugal on synergistic communication and the power of networks

  1. Heather, I did some further research on how these companies are involved. They are mostly facilitating resources (goods and services) to civil authorities and using their communication networks not simply to spread information but to raise awareness of the risk behaviours associated with simple day-to-day patterns. The tactic is largely to reach people while they are involved their daily routine (shopping, going to the post office, in the public transportation, fuelling, etc.).

    Among those most frequently involved by the companies’ communication efforts are Customers but also the Community (schools, scouts, etc.)and Employees (they are carriers and receivers of the messages). Taking into account that the whole process is done in articulation with the Civil Authorities and the Government, and that it also involves the Media, I’d say that’s a pretty sophisticated network. The only apparently important missing are the environmentalists. They that so often are seen as “opponents” by the companies…

    Toni, I think that the relevant difference here is that private resources are being made available for a public cause, therefore making those companies act in the public interest.

    Toni and Brian, according to available stats, only 3% of fires have Natural Causes and about 1/3 of all fires are related with Human Activity – roughly 16% of all fires are due to negligent behaviour, the same percentage of fires attributed to criminal actions. But the strange thing is that, at least in our 2006 National Report on fires, 64% of the fires are classified as of “Undetermined Origins”. I guess here is where some of those situations that both of you mentioned fit. And I would probably agree that the best public service that those companies could be involved in was in facilitating ways to research on fire origins. We are so moulded to think that the solution to fires is prevention that we sometimes forget that effectively knowing what really causes them is (at least) equally important.

    It is also interesting to note that you mention the credibility issue. One of the companies involved in the Eco Movement is normally rated as “most trusted brand” by a Reader’s Digest annual survey. You know, one of those surveys that tend to show a direct link between how much (and how well) you invest in advertising and how trusted you are.

    Could this be a source of Trust for a company or a test to how trusted a company is as a source? I can’t really tell. But then again, as Edelman’s Trust Barometer apparently shows, people are trusting companies more than they are trusting Governments….

  2. Our discussion in Toronto today about fires in Greece related to buying futures in olive oil.

    It’s a small world, and events in various places certainly can resonate thousands of miles away.

    In Toronto, we’re laready familiar with paying more for gasoline because a tanker sinks in Malasia, although we think the gasoline companies are liars, generally.


  3. Very interesting indeed, Joao. Well done. A good example of how we may use this blog to also exchange good practices, rather than only complain about others criticising us ( a common accusation we receive…).
    I don’t want to bore you to tears, but some years ago I wrote an essay on the annual publication of the University of Torino dedicated to social (public) communication, in which I argued that in more than 5 times out of 10 these initiatives, in the best of cases, amount to a waste of money and, in the worst, are actually counter productive. Of course, they satisfy the onanism of the politicians, the authorities and the non profit organizations involved…but such satisfaction most of the times benefits from public resources.
    A subsequent public debate about this ‘preposterous position’ (as it was then defined) sparked a number of other similar public statements by some of the more aware politicians which led to a more attentive framework in which at least some of those public funds were being used and also led a few professional associations to require the government to do a better job.
    Apparently, the case you indicate is not amongst these, and has produced positive effects.
    However it would be good to collect more info and analyse the correlation between the initiative and the decrease in fires. In Italy a few years ago, influenced by the enthusiasm of its authors only two months after it was launched, the then President of the Republic (my only Italian living hero Carlo Azeglio Ciampi..) publicly praised the communicative launch of the introduction of new severity against reckless driving because the immediate results in the fall of accidents had been positive, only to find out later on that the only reason Italian drivers were more attentive was the extraordinary mobilization of the police to enact that new severity. Once this relaxed, everything went back to normal and actually got worse.
    As for these fires, as you well know, they are often provoked by individuals and gangs who speculate on burned land or even blackmail authorities… and I wonder how much public behaviour really has to do with the phenomena.
    In any case, my qualms with social and public communication initiatives has to do with other reasons which I will here dwell with, having however said that there is nothing more powerful, to prove the value of our profession, than a successful social (public) initiative when it is well done. The problem is that this hardly ever happens.
    As you all know better than me, there have been, all over the world, many studies on the effectiveness of communication and many indicators have been developed. Most studies I know of say that a communication is effective if: a) the contents are familiar to the addressees; b) the sources are credible and , but in fewer instances, c) the contents are in themselves credible.
    I won’t explain these in detail here, but what seems to happen most of time for social and public communication initiatives is that: a ) they are addressed to a generic public (i.e. they do not succeed in attracting the attention of interlocutors because they give for granted that the contents are in themselves sufficiently interesting to attract their attention when they are not); b) the sources of the contents are not credible. Both of these variables imply that the communicators, sometimes inexperienced and more often hasty to make a quick buck knowing that noone will ever bother to evaluate and complain, have not done their homework. I argue that one should always pre test contents with representative samples of carefully selected publics according to those three indicators in order to adapt both contents and sources to fine tune both before launching and, after the launch, post test to evaluate results in order to improve follow ups and new initiatives. Banal? Yes, of course and this relates to the whole issue of evaluation and measurement of outputs, out takes, outcomes and outgrowths which is constantly being debated in this blog.
    The point here is that if you are using public funds you, as a communicator, have an extra social responsibility (although I today wonder how true this really still stands, as an increasing number of initiatives undertaken with private funds also imply modifying public and social behaviours, opinions and decisions….). Not only must you do your homework to avoid dispersion of public funds, but also to avoid counterproductive results. Many anti smoking, anti drug, anti obesity, anti drunken driving, anti-you-name-it initiatives stimulate, amongst a growing segment of antiestablishment antagonists (mostly youngsters, but also elderly anti prohibitionists and liberal radicals with whom I very much identify myself with..), just those very behaviours which are said to produce negative effects simply because the sources are not credible and they castrate the validity of the contents. A similar phenomenon happens also when credible sources get involved in recommending non credible contents…..

  4. This is an interesting example, and one to watch in terms of its long-term effectiveness and ongoind commitment of the companies involved.

    I suppose such activities could be termed as CSR – or claimed as social marketing.

    It is useful for society to have messages more widely distributed and rightly organisations are able to use their existing resources to do this – with minimal additional cost, very often.

    But I am not sure how effective simply getting a message out is today. Perhaps you have not the overload of one-way communications that we see in the UK. Are the companies also engaging their more active publics (employees, customers, local communities, etc) in the campaign? That could really help motivate some people power around a significant social issue.

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