Sergio Vazzoler

“Being a mayor has become a sort of Russian roulette”: former mayor of Genoa, Marta Vincenzi, was commenting on the Public Prosecutor’s request that she be sentenced to 6 years and 1 month of imprisonment for her responsibility in the management of the floods that hit the city in November 2011, in which 4 women and 2 children died.

This draws attention, yet again, to the role of the public authorities in crisis management when nature rebels and causes an environmental disaster. These are the issues I discuss in my chapter for the book “Disastri naturali: una comunicazione responsabile? Modelli, casi reali e opportunità nella comunicazione di crisi“, edited by Biagio Oppi and Stefano Martello and published by Bononia University Press of Bologna.

Marta Vincenzi used the Russian roulette metaphor to refer to the exclusive use of jurisprudence to determine the powers and responsibilities of a mayor with regard to civil defence. She certainly highlights a real and crucial point in current trends. Another question that requires reflection is the ability of the public-political system to govern environmental issues and related communication, starting with crises. And the example of communication management in the frequent floods that have struck Italy is extremely significant. “No one could have foreseen such heavy rainfall in so few hours”: how many times have we heard this in the aftermaths of the floods of the last few years?
Apart from the debate on the incidence of climate change, recent history teaches us that, in Italy too, flash floods are now the rule rather than the exception: we have seen them in Messina, the Cinque Terre, Genoa, the Marches, Olbia and in many other areas in the last ten years, with seventy-nine victims. Going back to communication, we should expect local authorities to be better informed about environmental questions, committed to emergency management (for example with special “war rooms where one of the places at the table should be for the communications director), rather than coming out with statements that denote superficiality and improvisation and reveal a culpable under-estimation of the consequences of insufficient attention to their area’s physical state of health.
On this point, and going back to Genoa, the statement of the lawyers for the civil plaintiffs is particularly alarming: it describes the local civil defence committee as “a machine that no one was interested in and even if it hadn’t met nothing would have changed given the unsuccessful management of the emergency”.

Another area that deserves special attention is web communication, specifically the social networks: today there is no lack of direct communication tools and channels public servants can use to address local residents, get involved and develop alliances and empowerment in connection with a common cause.
If little use is made of these solutions, if indeed they are systematically ignored, the reason probably stems from a fundamental flaw: the concern that the direct communication toolbox could create the risk of a move towards populism. As a result, preference continues to be given to the more reassuring press release and to sending out messages from congresses for the specialists, instead of opening that tool box and taking on its risks and opportunities. Yet this simply increases the gap between communication demand and supply: if citizens who use the web and social networks on a daily basis for their purchases of goods and services continue to find themselves shut out of public decision making, the danger is that they will abandon the arena of civic debate.

For details about the issues covered in the book, click here to go to the website.