An international view of crisis management of the Chile mine disaster

On the face of it, the handling of international media relations following the Chilean mining disaster has been a triumph.  It appeared to strike the perfect balance between control and lightness of touch.

The open communications approach that was evident from initial reports of the collapse of the mine reflected the leadership style of the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera.  Recently elected, engaging and able to undertake interviews in English, he was the perfect figurehead for global communications, particularly as hundreds of media descended on the country; outnumbering family members and rescuers in the aptly named Camp Hope.

Piñera not only had an international upbringing, education and career – but he is a former media owner.  His experience with Chilevisión is evident in his mastery of the broadcast medium.  The billionaire businessman’s well funded, successful presidential campaign involved considerable marketing and public relations competency.

The fact that Piñera’s government took control – as the mine’s owners were unable to respond and subsequently filed for bankruptcy – made matters easier.  The state took on the hero role – but did so competently (in contrast to perceptions of India before the opening of the Commonwealth Games).  Calling on assistance from experts from many countries extended support for the rescue effort and engaged media from Canada to Austria, where local angles enhanced the coverage.

Once the trapped miners had been found and a communications link established, the team on the ground ensured that images and sound were provided to the media – and this is where the control was most evident.  But unlike in the case of BP, the images had a vital human element, with the back-stories of the survivors being completed by open access to the families who in turn, seemed to welcome the media attention.

Indeed, the media appears to have reacted well to the lightness of touch with little evidence of any public relations practitioners imposing a particular line or acting as barriers between journalists and either the politicians, family members or recovery crews.

One can only imagine how different the crisis would have been handled in countries where PR generally takes a heavier hand.  In the UK, one would have expected the family members to have been signed up with media agents hawking their stories to the highest bidders (which may well still happen).  Perhaps in the US, the lawyers would have been the dominant force – and seeking to protect the mine-owner or in due course, the government from blame.

However, we have to remember that in terms of crisis management, the safe recovery of the 33 trapped miners was neither the beginning nor the end of the story.

The issue of mine safety has not been high on the media (or government) agenda – but there is plenty of evidence of a terrible lack of commitment to this matter in Chile (and elsewhere in the industry).  The disaster was bound to happen – and for the global industry, the fact it was a privately owned mine was fortunate.

It is likely that if a major international player had been behind the poorly maintained mine, the media would have found its villain – which is a different proposition for crisis management as we’ve seen in the case of BP.  Likewise, this situation was entirely domestic in terms of those involved – so no outsider to castigate – and for almost 100% of the media, this was someone else’s disaster.  As fascinating as any movie, but not affecting the audience back home in any personal or painful way.

This situation may well turn out to be an opportunity for PR practitioners involved in activist organisations who can use the disaster as a lever on those in this business who claim a commitment to corporate responsibility talk.  The Chilean government will also need to move on from criticising its predecessor and demonstrate that tougher regulations will be imposed.  The impact of such a change on its population and economy will need to be considered – it is harder to talk tough when faced with the real challenge of effecting change away from a crisis situation.

The global media now has the issue of mine safety in its sights (at least for the moment) and we have already seen an increase in critical stories – which is where the ongoing crisis management is vital.

Chile will ride on the crest of its positive outcome for a while – a well-timed visit to Europe by Piñera is a magnificent opportunity.  But the difficult questions will begin to build and need even more effective management if Chile is to lie to rest its previous reputation and maximise the potential to create a better impression of the country.

It is useful to deconstruct the crisis and not just trot out some glib “evidence” of successful PR management here as a result of tick box factors.  Yes, the communications response was fast and open – but the circumstances are very different to many of the other corporate crises we’ve seen in the past year or so.

And in many ways – although there will be plenty who claim otherwise – one of the key factors here seems to have been a lack of professional PR crisis management.  The focus was on the technical rescue and when the experts are able to execute their job without major problems, communicators undoubtedly have a much easier role.

Which perhaps underlies the fact that this was an engineering or management disaster – but at no time was there any need for it to be labelled as a PR disaster.  The fact is the crisis management wasn’t about public relations in any negative sense – it was a matter of keeping communication lines open and letting the positive news flow.

Additional commentary from Judy Gombita

Part of the reason why this heart-wrenching, nail-biting story of 70 days is a triumph is because the negative effect of the mine’s collapse directly impacted a relatively small group of individuals: the 33 miners and the mine owner (the mine was declared bankrupt in September). Obviously the reputation of the government (in particular the Chilean President and Minister of Mining) and nation were affected, but there wasn’t an ever-widening circle of economic and social fallout as seen in (for example) the BP oil spill, whereby the fishing and tourism industries (amongst others) took heavy hits, affecting the short- and possibly long-term livelihood of thousands of individuals. Amendment (10/18/2010): It came to my attention during a newscast last night that other employees still have not receive any severance pay, after the San Esteban mine went bankrupt. This source, Mining News and Journal, indicates 1,188 miners, but does not include administrative staff, etc. Ergo, a larger group of individuals were affected, but all from the same company and sector.

Although, for the most part, I agree with Heather’s assessment that “professional PR crisis management” did not appear to be evident, I think it is important to note that Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne, was a former long-time executive (including a stint as CEO of a multinational mining company) who was recruited to government by the (then) presidential candidate. As such, he would be familiar with effective communication methods employed by mining companies around the world. In fact, a Chilean commentator (used by a Canadian TV station for a live interview during the 22-hour rescue) said that Chileans appreciated the minister’s openness in sharing all available information and even used the words, “He did not spin anything.”

Likewise, the president had Reinaldo Sepulveda, the Chilean presidential media director, involved with the mine crisis from its first moments. As per a Globe and Mail article, “He was with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera when he was brought word of the disaster. In subsequent weeks, he travelled to the mine site many times, and soon began planning how to capture images of a rescue that had attracted an increasing amount of both national and international attention…. “Our objective was to make a sober transmission, calm, not manipulated. Everything that was seen is exactly what happened. If I had been carried away by this, I could have done many things. I could have done slow motions and I could have mixed images. It was the decision of the President to transmit exactly what was being seen.” (From How one man told world story of Chilean rescue).

“It was a $10- to $20-million exercise in crisis management run by a Harvard-educated billionaire President and his Stanford-educated retailer lieutenant, each only recently transplanted into government office.” From Chile’s CEO moment.

From a Canadian perspective, this story resonated, as the mining industry plays a significant role in both of our economies and Canada has had its own mining disasters (the most extensively reported tragedies in the 20th century probably being the ones in Springhill and Westray, Nova Scotia), including the increased emphasis on federal regulation of the industry.

It was gratifying that Canadian expertise was acknowledged and thanked by the Chilean president (together with that of the USA and Australia, which also have significant commodities-based economies and engineering resources) during a post-rescue news conference. Direct involvement in the rescue included Precision Drilling (based in Calgary, Alberta), Tecno Fast Atco, a joint Chilean-Canadian company (Canadian headquarters also in Calgary), and 25 on-the-ground Canadian workers.

For me one of the greatest images employed by Canadian media was to use the CN Tower (only in recent years surpassed as “the world’s tallest free-standing structure,” a distinction held for 31 years) to illustrate how deep below the ground was the miners’ base: the CN Tower stands 553 metres tall; the miners were 622 metres underground.

Personally, I was pleased that the world at large learned much about Chile over the past few months, including the mental strength—yet joy of life—that is so much a part of the Chilean fabric. Back in 1989, I took a fairly intensive summer course, Introduction to Spanish, at George Brown College, with one of the most delightful instructors I’ve ever experienced. Patricio Bascuñán was from Chile—considered an “intellectual radical,” he’d escaped in 1977 during the violent and repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet, separated from his wife and child for several months (and them not knowing where he was). Eventually they were happily reunited in Canada. Despite those grim years of political and personal hardship, Patricio retained his positive nature—with flashing eyes and warm, engaging humour (plus extraordinary teaching abilities). In my head, I can still hear his frequent proclamation, “Chill-eh—the best!” And it was Patricio’s Chilean “kindred brothers” who emerged, one-by-one, from the Phoenix Capsule. No spin there.

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[Image credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/dukepowers/2129813106/]


Articles that link to this post:

- The Chilean way: after the spotlight (openDemocracy: free thinking around the world)

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35 Responses to “An international view of crisis management of the Chile mine disaster”
  1. Heather distinguishes between a technical rescue/engineering & management disaster and a PR disaster, but are they mutually exclusive? After all, the BP oil spill started out as a technical problem and revealed a management disaster, which created a PR storm. I think Judy puts her finger on it when she notes that no matter how bad the outcome, the negative impact of this event was never likely to be widespread. When Heather says “for the global industry, the fact it was a privately owned mine was fortunate”, I assume she means a non publicly listed company, but that actually appears to have been part of the problem. According to an article in the Financial Times on 14 October, “The accident shows an important division in the world of mining. Global corporations…have poured considerable money and effort into safety improvements…Another part of the industry is smaller scale, without the resources to prioritise mine safety.” This statement challenges commonly held preconceived notions that larger companies always push standards towards a lowest common denominator. The San José mine has a long history of poor safety and, in fact, was only re-opened to profit from rising copper prices, which tend to trigger a spate of small mine (re)openings. Does this mean that the reason there was no PR disaster is because none of the actors corresponded to our predefined definition of villains? Is it politically incorrect to vilify a small enterprise in a developing country? Would we still say that a PR disaster had been averted if the miners were not extracted safely? Or does the real definition of a PR disaster have to do more with people seeking scapegoats and caricatured bad guys, both of which were lacking in this instance? It seems like the phrase is bandied about easily, but without a clear consensus on what it actually means.

    • Kristen – thanks for your comment. I distinguish between an operational and a PR crisis in this case for the exact point that you mention. Here there was an operational crisis which had an effective solution – and hence, no “PR disaster”. BP struggled with finding an operational solution which in turn put pressure on the management response leading to a widely claimed “PR disaster”. I do not think here that it was magnificent PR that saved the day, but the effective rescue solution. It does make a difference in the narrative to have heroes rather than a globally well known villain.

      Secondly, my reasons for saying that the fact of the mine being privately owned (as you say, not listed) was fortunate for the global industry is that any problems do not transfer onto the larger players – as the FT noted, a clear distinction is able to be drawn in this case. A bigger player could have been a villain, I feel even if it had managed a successful rescue. I think this is less about reluctance to slate a small enterprise in a developing country than a tendency to see big business more readily in the negative role. Very often even the larger concerns’ investment in safety etc is seen as driving out the smaller competitors.

      I think PR disasters are more readily framed around villains – which fits with the common Hollywood theme of big business which we are familiar with. If the outcome had been more tragic, the engineers (outsiders) could still have been seen as heroic in their struggles with the rescue.

      The phrase “PR disaster” is bandied about too regularly, which is why I was interested to look at this case. It is also interesting to compare the lack of attention being paid to last week’s Chinese mine explosion – here the Western media have practically zero access; the casualties and companies are all domestic. The arrest of Chinese mine bosses after a shooting at a Zambian mine seems to be equally low key. But here, there are no heroes being rescued, no media-savvy presidents and no household names to be vilified.

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    I’ve amended my portion of the post to include the following:

    It came to my attention during a newscast last night that other employees still have not receive any severance pay, after the San Esteban mine went bankrupt. This source, Mining News and Journal, indicates 1,188 miners, but does not include administrative staff, etc. Ergo, a larger group of individuals were affected, but all from the same company and sector.

    The September 15th article touches upon some of the areas that Kristen comments on, including this paragraph:

    “Even without the government-organized job, the miners should be no lack of work in the industry. Chilean mining sector is booming, with $ 50 billion in new investments expected in the next five years, thus becoming difficult to find skilled miners.”

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    I think the rescue shows the inspirational power of a human triumph over adversity on the global stage – one that was delivered live on our screens, reality TV style, except this time it was for real. But there were some awkward issues behind the scenes as this piece highlights:

    http://www.smh.com.au/world/we-know-best-doctors-tussle-with-miners-20100917-15g9b.html

  4. Interestingly, this morning in the Ipra Yahoo chat room Peter Walker (I am confident he won’t mind my quoting him…) commented on a related issue by saying
    quote,
    I suggest you look no further than Chile and contact the Minister of Mines, because if ever a country and the whole of Government demonstrated how to manage international and national media relations with consummate ease and extra ordinary panache and professionalism, it was him and his Government colleagues, event the President who demonstrated how it should be done.
    Who ever give accolades and awards in Ipra for public relations professionalism there will be no better candidate than Chile’s Minister Laurence Golborne
    unquote

    • I think that Paul and Judy are both right in that there will be other stories bubbling under that will not be so positive. That will be the true measure of the Chilean government’s public relations. I tend to think that any praise for the government at this stage may be a bit premature – and also fail to recognise the value of good fortune in terms of how well the rescue went. It is certainly much easier to show how things “should” be done when you aren’t dealing with a zillion negatives emerging whilst you are communicating a particular narrative.

      I’m not saying that Golborne doesn’t deserve credit, but I do dislike the simplistic way in which the PR industry tends to divide crisis management into good/bad without looking at the complexities (or lack of) in any scenario. I don’t think it is at all helpful to hold up some cases as “best practice” (eg Tylenol) and others as bad practice (Exxon Valdez etc) because it tends to remove the situational nature of any crisis and imply that PR is the saviour of any problem which isn’t necessarily so.

  5. Don Radoli says:

    Unfortunately, the underlying issue — safety in mine operations worldwide (and specifically at this private mine in Chile) seems to have been buried and the avalnche of of euphoria after the successful rescue. One of the rescued miners put til philosophically when as her emerged from his 69-day ordeal said: I’ve been with God and the devil.

    There were definitely three separate successes; 1) That all the 33 miners survived (God’s hand?), 2) That the technical operation went so smoothly and finally 3) That President Pinera and his ministers instituted and executed a transparent information dissermination around the crisis — that is what this post is generally about.

    Now, where is the devil the miner referred to? We would be myopic if we were blinded by the stunning success of the PR effort and ignore what caused the disaster in the first place — the issue of safety in mine operations. And it is not just about legislation — but the enforcement of exisisting legislation. Seen in this light, there is nothing to celebrate.

    • Don, Thanks for the comment – my purpose with the post was primarily to question the immediate impression that this was an example of exemplary management of crisis communications. Indeed, I noted that after the rescue (operational crisis) the real PR crisis management remains in respect of addressing issues about mine safety – specifically for the Chilean government but also as a global issue since, for a short period (until media attention moves on), there is an opportunity for the matter to move up the political and public agenda.

      Speaking with the BBC on his visit to London (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11565850), Piñera has vowed to do “whatever is necessary to have a more secure mining industry”. This is a commitment that the world media needs to ensure is achieved – but as noted in my response to Kristen, the wider context of the issue in Africa and China also needs to be addressed. Also, promises made by Obama after a US coal mine explosion in April need to be realised.

      My grandfather was a coal miner in the UK from a very young age (12 years) and his father was killed in a pit explosion (which my grandfather witnessed) in the early 20th century. It seems that despite so many advances in the world since then, the dangers of mining remain with little regard for the men who work in these harsh environments.

      It is clear that politicians and the media both have a role to play in addressing this issue – likewise there needs to be higher profile activism in the form of Union public relations or other special interest groups. As I mentioned in the original post, these groups have a window of opportunity to push for improvements before the story moves on.

      • Don Radoli says:

        Thanks again, Heather. My post way in no way meant to imply that you take issue of safe mine operations lightly. It was intended to shift focus from success celebration to the underlying cause.

        The underlying cause is not a communication problem and can’t be solved by PR.

        Legislation and enforcement has always been and stilll remains the key.

      • Don – I didn’t take your comment as criticism – and I agree with you regarding the importance of the safety issue. However, I do think that there is a role for communications management here – not least by those who need to keep the pressure on the industry and government to improve safety standards. Also, both industry and government will need to communicate what they are doing in regards to addressing the issue. There needs to be plenty of evidence of improved standards first of course, otherwise communication will lack any credibility.

        • Don Radoli says:

          Heather – You are right about the role of comms in awareness and pressure. What I intended to write was that the issue of safety was not “primarily” a comms issue in the sense that it is not the lack of adequate comms that has caused it. Comms can help solve the issue as you rightly point out but it will “primarily” be the authorities through legislation, enforcement and penalties that will have to deal with it. Rogue capitalism won’t — unsafe mines are being opened because the price of copper is rocketing. To some mine owners and investors, human life is expendable

  6. Venkat G says:

    Rescuing the miners was aptly handles. The PR strategy garnered a lot of sympathy. However Piñera’s reals test of governance has just begun as he will have to perform under the consistent scrutiny of the world media and deliver on his commitments – especially on the much needed reforms in the mining sector.

  7. I would like to return to the Heather/Don exchange on safety regulations, and the role of public relations (here intended as relationships with stakeholders) in the development of a safety culture in the organization.

    Of course I fully agree with Don that legal compliance and sector specific safety regulations are essential.

    But, as we know, this is only one side of the coin (and sustainable organizations need to stimulate the public policy process in taking a good look at the specificities of each sector).

    The other side of the coin has very much to do with the level of responsibility culture existing inside each organization. My experience with mining is nil, but over the years I have been involved in change management programs whose objectives were to raise the level of attention by top and middle management to the safety issue in the sectors of construction, chemical, auto and food.

    A few findings:

    - clearly every sector, and within each sector, every organization has its own specific culture which needs to be investigated before even hoping to attract a collaborative attention of management to the issue;

    - there needs to be a firm and visible commitment by the board of directors indicating that safety culture is an indicator of a sustainable performance and needs to be monitored and needs to be discussed at each of its meetings in the context of the organization’s sustainability policy (King 3);

    - there needs always to be a firm and visible commitment by the organization’s leadership that cannot reside in a one-shot-show-up at a meeting;

    - emotional grabbing and, as close as possible, examples of how accidents or plain criminal acts might have been avoided had management been more aware of its direct responsibility towards a healthier safety culture;

    - integration of safety culture indicators in the evaluation of each managers performance and bonus;

    - multi-channel communication amongst managers and between each manager and her/his direct line need to be contemporary, learned, intelligent, provocative and, wherever possible, even entertaining;

    - safety culture programs need to be totally embedded and integrated in all executive and non executive education processes internally.

    All this of course does not imply that, necessarily, accidents or criminal events do not happen or will certainly reduce in numbers.

    What it does however imply is that top and middle managers will have no excuses to be distracted from one of their more decisive responsibilities: the well being of the people who work with or for them.

    Public relations (intended here as the alignment of internal and external communication integrated with the governance, management and sustainability areas of where it aligns more value to the organization) can certainly play a very crucial role in the development of a sustainable safety culture.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Very comprehensive. Thank you, Toni.

      But in the case of the (small and private) San Esteban mine, it has gone bankrupt.. Ergo, San Esteban will not be developing a “responsibility culture.” And I wonder at the likelihood of privately owned, similarly-sized Chilean (or those of other nations) mines doing these things voluntarily.

      It sounds like if you were his counsel, you’d advise President Piñera follow the lead of South Africa and its King Reports….

  8. Josh Greenberg says:

    This is an excellent post, both Heather’s original commentary and Judy’s critique/response. I think Judy is absolutely correct to note the importance of choreography. The careful planning and, in particular, the central control by the state of all broadcast images, was a public relations triumph (some might correctly argue a triumph of propaganda). I’d be inclined to consider a different intellectual exercise in alternatives: not only what might have happened in a country where PR takes a heavier hand, but in a country where state media could not have been so easily controlled. What, in other words, would the story have looked like had CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and other global media organizations been able to use and narrate their own live feeds? Ultimately, this was a media event on a grand scale. It is an excellent example of what Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz famously called the live broadcasting of history. The challenge looking ahead, as Heather rightly points out, is whether activist groups will be able to keep the issue of mine safety at the top of the media and political agendas now that the issue of miner safety has been resolved.

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    The first deception to avoid is the one that says that safety is our first priority. That’s never honest. If it were one would have to conclude that the only risk-free policy was not to mine anything at all – especially deep underground. All good companies conduct a probabilistic risk analysis that lets them know how many deaths or injuries might occur as a consequence of their operations. But no mining, energy company, or toy factory could afford to gear their operations to produce zero risk; or ever attempts to do so. We have the same problem in health care; when does it become uneconomic to save more lives by spending more money? The great thing about the disaster in Chile was how well-prepared (I accept they had little choice, but their goodwill was inspirational too) the miners were to share some of the risk. That’s how strong adult relationships can be! I hope that while safety improves (as it damn well must in Chile) the PR is kept ethical and truthful and not reduced to producing fictions that no robust miner could believe without the aid of a few stiff drinks.

  10. Here’s an interesting new spin on the coverage. This morning on France Info (radio), there was a report called “Chile — the miraculously saved…and the forgotten” (Chili — les miraculés et les oubliés), which contrasts the treatment of the 33 with the fate of the earthquake victims in Concepción. Several hundred thousand people are still homeless following the earthquake 8 months ago, and they are now asking how the government was able to find the equivalent of 14 million euros to save the 33 when the plight of the earthquake victims (many of whom still do not have running water) continues.

    • Roberto Ossandón says:

      There should be no comparison between rescue of the miners and reconstruction tasks derived from our last big earthquake in the south of Chile. In global terms, rescue of the miners is easier because there was only 33 persons affected while victims of the earthquake reached almost 1 million. Despite that judgmental reports, promoted mainly by left politics, so far, reconstruction project has become the more effective of the whole history of the country. However, effectiveness of current government fights against traditional bureaucracy embedded in state system since too many year ago. Reconstruction plan has a cost of almost USD$20.000 millions and it will take 4 years to be completed.

      • Judy Gombita says:

        Thank you for your comment, Roberto. It’s particularly relevant and effective when the statement and information comes from a Chilean.

        I know that Sebastián Piñera was newly elected when the last major earthquake hit Chile, but I’m wondering if you’d care to comment on the effectiveness (or not) of the government in terms of conveying information about the earthquake’s impact and communicating about immediate and long-term relief efforts?

  11. Paul Seaman says:

    It is not a fair comparison. One was a general act of nature (God), the other the result of negligence and a potential betrayal, if you like, of trust. There was a contractual corporate obligation to save the men. Both were human tragedies (it’s poor planning and poverty that kills people mostly in earthquakes) but still they are different. People die all the time in disasters, misery abounds, but the 33 miners earned their attention and the investment in saving them because there was a real duty to do so on the part of the mine-owners and the authorities with whom the men were in a high risk relationship. We all appreciated the story, the effort, the humanity, but it had a purpose. Reputation protection and a licence to operate were part of it…that is why Heather and Judy were able to discuss in the terms they did. But the earthquake’s aftermath requires a different type of treatment. The newspaper is comparing apples with rocks.

    • Josh Greenberg says:

      I haven’t read the report Kristen refers to (a link would be great) but my sense is that the point is not what caused the disaster but why there were clearly different scales in prioritizing the relief efforts. One crisis obtained the investment of far more state capital (financial and symbolic) than the other, and the Pinera government has benefited tremendously from that investment. I suspect if the miner relief effort hadn’t been so overtly and masterfully stylized, the rhetorical strength of the criticism regarding the earthquake relief would be lessened. It’s one of the side effects of promotion–you increase your visibility and that brings added attention, both positive and critical. At the same time, Paul is correct to note that the actual causal differences of these disasters do matter – they condition different expectations and interests (on the part of the media and the international audience) about which victims are more worthy of our attention, even if it’s agreed they are equally worthy of relief.

  12. Paul–It is the people of Concepción making the comparison, with the journalists reporting on their mixture of pride and bitterness watching the mine rescue. The cause of each event is one way to differentiate the events, but another is to look at the scope of human misery and suffering. There were some 2 million victims of the earthquake, and several hundred thousand of them are still in miserable conditions through no fault of their own. On the other hand, you could argue that the miners took a calculated risk by accepting their jobs. I think it’s a fair question to ask why the rescue of a handful of “consenting adults” is a priority over providing humane living conditions to teeming masses of innocent victims. Your argument about reputation and license to operate only applies if it were the company who paid for the rescue. This is not the case because the company went bankrupt and the state stepped in. There was no corporate reputation and no license to operate left to protect.
    Dan–This is what I meant about the term “PR disaster”. It’s bandied about as if PR caused the problem (rarely the case). A more accurate term, and one that would do less damage to the profession, would be “reputation disaster”. With the price of metals rising, not only are companies rushing to open new mines, but many, otherwise gainfully employed people, are rushing to become miners (and not always being trained properly) because mining is better paid than, say, waiting tables.

  13. Paul Seaman says:

    Kristen, focusing on the scale and scope of the misery might lead us to this logic: Chile’s population is 20 million versus Pakistan’s 170 million. There were more Pakistani flood victims than there are people living in Chile; let alone the relatively few people among them who were affected by the earthquake. Therefore Pakistan’s victims are more deserving than Chile’s. I don’t find such logic helpful.

    Moreover, in any disaster we save the people we can. After an earthquake we don’t – and Chile didn’t – leave people to rot under the rubble. We pull them out of it with whatever means we have to hand in the time available. What the earthquake victims are complaining about is mostly what came next; and perhaps, understandably, what went on before that made the rescue effort inadequate to the task at hand…fair enough.

    But, yes, I continue to say that the business of mining and its reputation matters a great deal. If Chile lost the complete trust of those who work in its mines and other risky occupations that would be more damaging to its 20 million people than any earthquake. In short, you need an economy to pull people out of poverty (and even earthquakes) and you need trust to make it work. That’s why Pinera had to step in. The outcome was inspirational.

  14. To pick up on the debate about communication around the Chilean miners and earthquake victims, I think there are several differences that are worth noting:

    1. Scale is important – although huge numbers are worthy of media attention, they lack the human connection that ultimately makes a story come alive and maintains public interest. In the case of 33 miners, these remain human stories – whereas tens of thousands impacted by an earthquake are faceless masses on the whole. The exception is where individual stories can be told. Who could fail to remember the smiling face of the young boy, Kiki, in Haiti – or the woman singing hymns whose husband had mounted a personal vigil to find her? Any disaster has to be personal to stimulate a level of interest or its vastness is too difficult for most people to grasp or relate to.

    2. For the media there is a vastly different narrative here. The mining disaster presented a tale that could be told of heroic rescuers, plucky miners and a generous government (the villain being the bankrupt mining company). Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters rarely present such easy narratives – particularly if they happen in countries where such catastrophes are not unusual and the victims are largely poor. With the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for much of the world’s media, it was the impact on tourists (with their video footage) which became the narrative – which is evident in the plight of the indigenous populations who have still not received sufficient help to rebuild their lives.

    3. It is always easier to find money for a manageable problem, where the tendency is to ignore more endemic situations which are harder to resolve and hope they go away. Regardless of the outcome of the mining disaster, a rescue attempt could be mounted and costs justified. Tackling the problems and outcomes of an earthquake are much harder, more long-term, and have a less dramatic conclusion.

    4. From a government communications perspective, the mining disaster was one where some control and positive positioning could be achieved. An earthquake happens over a larger area, affecting more people, requires more people involved in managing the immediate and post-crisis scenario. As such, it is much less easy for communicators to focus on a positive position, engage national and international media in a controlled way and dedicate the long-term resources to building relationships, providing updated communications and so on.

    Add to this, the value to Chile of being able to look in control of a manmade disaster whereas a natural disaster is seen as fate. Sadly, we live in a world where attention has less to do with numbers of people and how deserving they may be, than the value of their story and how it can be best told in ways that suit those with the power to tell it, be that media, corporate, government or activist/community communicators.

  15. Paul Seaman says:

    I’m inclined to see things more positively than Heather does. Let’s not forget that the mine accident in Chile was caused by the earthquake. I think we would have helped people trapped under building rubble from a tower block just as energetically. Disasters often bring out the best in people.

    We should not see every human triumph as a conspiracy.

    • Paul – I am with you on the human response to any disaster and don’t believe that the Chilean government or the media acted cynically in giving the mining disaster a high profile. But it is the human connections that we tend to respond to – hence campaigns to stimulate help have to focus on the people involved at an individual level to ensure identification and draw out that best in the public.

  16. Heather, all the points you raise are valid and people in power have to set priorities some how. All of that makes sense from a rational basis. But are the people in Concepción looking at this in a calculated, rational manner? I am not saying that the government deserves to be criticized for the different management of these two situations, but it is likely to be by at least some people. If there are still several hundred thousand people in the south displaced by the earthquake, that’s a lot of disgruntled potential outspoken critics. Before we hand out grades on Chile’s PR handling of the situation, I think we need to wait and see how they manage the internal tensions that could arise if the sentiments outlined in the news report are common. The government is probably in the honeymoon period of the rescue operation’s PR, It remains to be seen what the verdict will be when we have more perspective on it and when we see how relations are managed with outlying groups of stakeholders, rather than those immediately impacted.

    • Kristen – the original post was intended to highlight that glib judgements of the management of the mining disaster as a PR success were premature and simplistic. Whether the Chilean victims of the earthquake are able to keep their issue on the international agenda – or have a major impact on the reputation of the government will only be told in time.

  17. Judy Gombita says:

    From my point of view, this post focuses on the handling–and success or failure of–the Chilean mining disaster over the 70-day period between the mine’s cave-in and the 22-hour rescue, from an international public relations point of view.

    Competing disasters (including story angles the media takes on), future mining regulation (and enforcement*), etc., weren’t really on my radar of intent. Although they certainly could be stand-alone blog posts, here or elsewhere! And not that I’m discouraging future conversations about these things, on this post.

    I’m curious as to whether any of our readers have a better knowledge and understanding of Chile’s current safety, etc., mine regulations. One thing I’ve wondered is whether the existing regulations were really that lax or was it more a case of there not being enough inspectors ensuring that the minimum safety regulations were being enforced–especially in the smaller, private and more-isolated mines.

    I’ve been pondering this for quite some time (remembering how one end-result of the Maple Leaf Foods’ Listeriosis crisis was the hiring of more government inspectors to ensure the enforcement of food safety standards), so was interested to read this article in Sunday’s Toronto Star, Gold Standard, about the Chilean “pirquineros” — poor, unregulated miners who work alone or in small crews.

  18. Judy Gombita says:

    It’s very flattering that The Chilean way: after the spotlight (openDemocracy: free thinking around the world) article links to the above post. (See “The Future” and words “powerful incentive.”)

    Personally, I’m appreciative of the fact that the article’s author, Patricio Navia, also traces Chile’s recent political and social history.

  19. Judy Gombita says:

    For an update on the miners, listen to this segment on CBC Radio One’s “Q” show, where host Jian Ghomeshi talks to Santiago-based Guardian reporter Jonathan Franklin, who’s been covering the latest drama — this one about deteriorating relationships between the miners, and disputes over financial compensation. Banks also wrote a book about the miners’ ordeal, 33 Men:

    Are the rescued Chilean miners getting shafted?

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