a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to spin and how not to

If there were an Olympic gold medal for political spin doctoring, Reinaldo Sepulveda would win it hands down.

So who is Reinaldo Sepulveda? He is media director for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. But most importantly, he is the person who assembled eight cameras with 55 technicians and media from all over the world at a remote mine site in the Atacama Desert in Chile for a drama that enthralled an entire planet.

About a billion people were watching live last week when 33 miners were hauled up one by one at the San Jose mining site in an operation that will likely set the gold standard for mining industry rescues for many years.

The operation will also be a case study for governments around the world on how to turn a potential political disaster into what will probably be a vote getter for Chile’s media-savvy president. Pinera is also the former owner of TV channel Chilevision.

When the miners were trapped Aug. 5, there was potential for disastrous consequences for any government. Safety had been an issue at the mine and the owners were not exactly forthcoming with details on what happened.

Pinera decided to put together a media spectacle thanks to Sepulveda’s three decades as a television producer with experience at several Olympics and World Cup soccer matches.

The Chilean government took incredible risks by showing the miners underground on a day-to-day basis and of course the long recovery operation. But it also did a good job of managing people’s expectations by announcing early it may take until Christmas to rescue the miners 700 metres below the surface.

Contrast this with the way BP handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP kept building up people expectations only to announce a litany of failures.

Safety and other nasty issues are bound to come up in the aftermath of the San Jose disaster. But nothing can dilute the world’s initial memories of that dramatic rescue operation.

We likely will see more governments stage managing disaster relief operations after this one.

Any bets that Canada will be one of those governments?

We are not likely to forget the way the Harper government controlled the damage of losing a seat on the UN Security Council last week.

Since we all knew Canada faced a tough vote, you’d think Ottawa would have had a carefully-crafted cover story in reserve just in case we lost.

But the best Ottawa could do was try to blame everything on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff – sort of like the dog ate my homework. The Harper government’s lack of strategy is very telling.

Maybe the Prime Minister’s Office should dip into the contingency fund to send its chief spindoctor, Dimitri Soudas, to Santiago to study how real professional communicators take the high road.

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