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A tale of two crises: the Chilean mining rescue and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

A tale of two crises: the Chilean mining rescue and the Deepwater Horizon explosion

When the Chilean authorities first made contact with 33 miners trapped underground following a cave-in at the San Jose copper-gold mine on 5 August 2010, they estimated that it would be Christmas before the men could be brought to the surface.

In fact, the miners were successfully hauled to safety more than two months before this initial estimate, on 13 October.

'Whether simple caution, or communication strategy, this managing of expectations was a masterstroke,' says communication specialist Dorothy Crenshaw, in the December 2010 issue of Risk Management. 'It took some of the pressure off, enabled the Chilean Government to succeed beyond all hopes, and made it look super-competent in the process.'

She highlights other lessons that public-relations specialists can learn from the rescue of the miners after nine weeks underground.

Chilean president Sebastian Pinera took personal responsibility for the rescue, even wanting to be the first man down in the rescue capsule to join the miners underground. His wife dissuaded him from this, but the calculated risk he took in linking himself so closely with the rescue effort was richly rewarded.

By presenting a Plan A and a Plan B for the rescue early on, the Chilean Government looked organized and in control. It sought technical help and advice from outside, but kept tight control over communications - what Crenshaw calls 'the first rule of crisis PR'. By communicating even the smallest details of the plan - from the construction of the rescue tube to the monitoring of each miner's health - the Government conveyed not only competence, but caring.

'The Chilean PR machine was proactive, consistent and transparent in providing updates to the media,' says Crenshaw. 'It never seemed to be obscuring facts or delaying disclosure, which often happens when the pressure is on.'

The Government also used social media to support its communications, setting up a Flickr page of photographs that documented the rescue. Chile's mining minister was at the site virtually round the clock, and President Pinera appeared frequently. 'Sure, the head guy can get updates from his office, but when lives are at stake, optics really matter,' Crenshaw concludes.

The lesson appears to have been lost on former BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who was roundly criticized by the media for attending a yacht race on the Isle of Wight during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

An explosion on the oil rig on 20 April 2010 killed 11 men working on the platform and injured 17 others. Spillage from the incident - the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry - continued until 19 September. But in mid-June Tony Hayward was pictured spending the day on his private yacht at Cowes, off the south coast of England.

BP claimed that it was his first non-working day since the crisis started and that he was always in touch with what was happening. But a White House spokesman referred to the move as 'one of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes'. Mr Hayward announced his intention to resign in July, saying that BP would be a changed company as a result of the oil spill and it was right that it should embark on its next phase under new leadership.

In Volume 40, Issue 12 of The RoSPA Occupational Safety & Health Journal, published in December 2010, Nick Cook examines the underlying causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and previous accidents involving BP installations in the USA. He concludes that not all the blame can be laid at BP's door, since US Government regulation of the oil industry had been 'relatively ineffectual' for years.

The Chilean Government did not get everything right at San Jose; nor was BP entirely in the wrong over Deepwater Horizon. But in the court of public opinion there is little room for nuance. When the PR machines swing into action, there is everything to play for.

In other Emerald news, the inaugural issue of The Journal of Family Business Management, has recently been published. The journal provides broad and unrivalled coverage of all aspects of contemporary family business strategy and management.

For more information about the journal, or to submit an article, go to: www.emeraldinsight.com/jfbm.htm.