An international view of crisis management of the Chile mine disaster – by Heather Yaxley (PR Conversations – October 14, 2010)

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).

For the rest of this article, please go to the PR Conversations website: