How a Disaster can Help a Country’s Image

The August 5th mine collapse near Copiapo, Chile seemed like more bad luck for a country already hit by one of the largest earthquakes in history this past …

The August 5th mine collapse near Copiapo, Chile seemed like more bad luck for a country already hit by one of the largest earthquakes in history this past February. Media coverage of the mining disaster was constant and the way in which the Chilean government and miners handled the situation mesmerized the media and consumers alike. On October 13th, millions across the globe were riveted to their TV sets watching the dramatic rescue take place, almost two months before anticipated.  It was a stunningly inspirational scene – a disaster, rescue plan and successful result – seemingly in lockstep that even Hollywood writers couldn’t have improved upon.

A Silver Lining?

At the outset of the crisis, it was hard to imagine there could be a silver lining to the story, one that could provide an advantage for how Chile, as a country, is presented to the world. Can the outcome of natural or man-made disasters have a positive impact on a country’s competitiveness in growing exports, attracting investment or seeking outsourcing contracts?  The Chilean miners’ rescue offers some interesting lessons.

1. Leadership makes a difference

There is that old saying that “a fish rots from the head”.  Conversely, positive, focused leadership trickles down throughout an organization and effects planning, implementation and results.  Chile’s focused leadership from President Sebastian Piñera and particularly Mining Minister Laurence Golborne made a difference in how the rescue effort (managed more like a large construction project) was strategically planned and implemented.  The plan allowed for international cooperation, options, customer relations (i.e. miners’ families), and management of public expectations.

2. Emotion and egos get you nowhere; help moves you forward

Chile offers a diverse mix in its socio-economic strata.  Much of the country feels like a highly developed nation.  There is a thriving middle class, high literacy and education rates, advanced use of the Internet and telecommunications.  Yet, there are pockets of extreme poverty and underdevelopment that give a very different picture.  It’s certainly a very long way from Haiti to Chile but Chile still is not at the level of many developed countries which probably explains why the country ranks #30 in the Global Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Report and not higher.  The Chileans didn’t ask for charitable contributions but did welcome cutting-edge technology and advice from other countries with the goals of beating the expected result of not getting the miners out until mid December.  The U.S. has not responded in as focused or timely a way when it has been hit by disasters.  American egos have gotten in the way of accepting foreign help.

3. Media needs to be managed but not catered to

While the media savvy crisis mangers in Chile worked with the international journalist community, platitudes and wild claims were avoided and the focus was kept on what needed to be done.

For example, the Wall Street Journal published a story “Chile Mining Minister Is Resourceful in Rescue” in which writer Matt Mofffett wrote about the response from the Chilean government, dominated by former business executives.  Centered around Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, a former retail executive, the story traces Golborne’s early missteps in the crisis to gaining the confidence of the miners and their families.  It praises Golborne’s communication skills in dealing “with people from lots of different social strata” and goes on to cite the oft repeated catchphrase for the current government, “Chile Inc.”

Then, on September 10th, an article appeared in Universal Knowledge@Wharton, the newsletter of the esteemed Wharton School of Business’, titled, “Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork – from 700 Meters Below the Earth’s Surface”.  The article is an interview with Francisco Javier Garrido, a professor of strategy at various MBA programs in Europe and the Americas.  Garrido talks glowingly of the miners and their leadership skills.

These are the types of stories, not the ones about mistresses or movie deals, that will be long lasting and have true value for Chile’s image and competitiveness.

4. Results can reveal societal traits

In the Wharton article, Garrido details the miners’ skills in situation analysis, overcoming elementary responses, viewing efforts as a function of goals, teamwork, ethical coherence and integrity and communication skills.  These 33 miners, he notes have taught “the business world that you need to act with flexibility when it comes to achieving your goals.”  He further points out, “There are lessons here that transcend the world of business instruction when it comes to [defining] such expressions as “decision making,” “leadership” and “teamwork.”

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Since the successful rescue, there have been hundreds of articles and blogs adding to the comments on work skills of the miners and leadership of Chilean officials.

Given the positive results of managing this crisis, two questions arise:

First, is it ethical to use the story of the miners to profile or position Chile or Chilean businesses? If used in a tactical way, it seems inappropriate and opportunistic to promote such a story as saying something positive about a company, sector or country.  To those who read the media coverage, the lessons are there for us to see.  The story illustrates how leaders can respond to crises and victims can show behaviors and values that can teach us about disaster response.  Finally, it shows us how leadership can operate in the midst of crisis and media can respond positively to not overreact as so often takes place, but to manage for what everyone hopes will be positive outcomes.

Second, what real impact does crisis management have on a country’s image? Several months ago, in Nearshore Americas, Simon Anholt, a British branding consultant asserted that there is no evidence to show that marketing communications can change a country’s image (see “The Latin America Image Issue:  Going Beyond the Superficial to Create a ‘Nation Brand’.”) Anholt said, “Influencing a country’s reputation is primarily a matter of policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period – it has nothing to do with logos, slogans, advertising or PR campaigns.”

The World Watches

All of this is true but it ignores the impact of what happens when a country exercises strong management tools to solve a difficult problem while the world watches.  Few would dispute that Chile’s positive awareness is much higher today than it was before the mining accident.  It is a result of both what the Chileans did and what they said working with modern media and marketing communications as part of the overall management of the crisis.

The miners’ rescue won’t change Chile’s ranking on the global competitiveness index but it will open doors in the U.S. and elsewhere for Chilean businesses that never looked at the country before.  How long those doors stay open and whether they lead to new business will depend on how well Chile manages from this point forward.

Jon Stamell is CEO of Futureshift, a research, strategic planning and digital management firm with experience in image development for countries, sectors and companies.

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