A conversation among expert crisis management and environmental communicators at a seminar promoted by the Communication workgroup of the National System for Protection of the Environment in cooperation with FERPI-CASP (Professional Updating Commission), for Italy’s Environmental Agencies, on 10 May. Coordinated by Giampietro Vecchiato, client manager of PR Consulting, through a series of interviews and case histories, industry experts presented a “minimal” toolbox that every crisis manager should own.

A report of the day edited by Arpat News is available here, with abstracts of the contributions from Giampietro Vecchiato, Luca Primavera, communication manager at Zambon, Giovanni Viafora of Corriere del Veneto, Ferruccio Di Paolo from the Firefighters Department of the public emergency and civil defence arm of the Ministry of the Interior.

This article provides excerpts from the interview conducted by Giovanni Landolfi, a corporate communication consultant and owner of StampaFinanziaria, with Amapola partner and environmental communication consultant Sergio Vazzoler.

(G.L.) What is the main difficulty in managing an environmental emergency?
(S.V.) Ensuring the speed and calm needed to initiate a coordinated operational and communication response… but of course, emotion, fear and the state of emergency don’t help: that’s why the support of a ready-to-use crisis communication procedure can be decisive in helping the people involved in action coordination to adopt a correct approach. Without adequate preparation, everything will be more complicated and communication blunders more frequent. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that a “crisis handbook” is all you need, but it does prevent a whole series of potential mistakes and oversights and improves people’s focus in adapting action to the specific circumstances.

When there’s an emergency, public authorities and environmental agencies sometimes prefer to take their time, and communicate as little as possible: what’s the right approach?
Yes, unfortunately this often happens. And, to be frank, it’s not restricted to public authorities and agencies but is also frequent among business organisations, large and small. Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong in “taking time” to avoid releasing erroneous information, but equally everyone should be aware that today’s systems circulate information in real time and with a total lack of filters.
The opposite applies to “communicating as little as possible”: this is a complete mistake, because there’s bound to be someone else who communicates before us, in an controlled or uninformed manner.
To sum up, there’s only one way: responsive widespread communication is the best approach in an emergency.

Pressure from the press and the social networks almost always outweighs the forces an organisation can deploy in a crisis: what’s your solution to this type of difficulty?
This is a real problem and organisations should be careful to avoid using it as an excuse not to foster a communication culture. The shortage of resources often stems from laziness or, in some cases, a refusal to consider communication an integral part of the organisation’s mission. Then they find themselves “exposed” from this point of view when an emergency occurs. If it isn’t possible to have an ad hoc figure, special training is a valid alternative. Networking with the other local organisations is equally important, to create a coordination point with at least one resource dedicated to communication.

In crisis situations, the media always focus on damage, risks, costs, responsibilities: in your experience what is the key to changing the tone of reporting from negative to positive?
This is one of the biggest challenges in environmental communication. The emergency isn’t the time to take action to counter this consolidated tendency. A lot can be done before a crisis occurs: first, by eliminating specialist jargon in favour of a simpler, more comprehensible form of communication. We need “shared meaning frames” that incorporate environmental themes and challenges. American linguists have taught politicians something similar: you change the value frames of reference to match voters’ daily lives more closely. The frames help you move beyond your own cultural references. Because, ultimately, battles are won with majorities. And then people like me who work in environmental communication need to make an additional effort to highlight the opportunities offered by an environmental problem. It is no coincidence that the change of direction on climate change came when the business community realised the economic opportunities of moving from fossil fuels to a green economy. But there’s still a long way to go and it’s an uphill road…

The impartiality of entities like the regional environmental protection agencies has its negative side: when they produce data that makes “uncomfortable” reading, they find themselves on a collision course with business, residents, committees, public authorities. What is the way out of this contradiction?
This is a very serious question, but it doesn’t depend on the environmental protection agencies, who find themselves up against the lack of trust that also affects public authorities and business organisations. The only way around this contradiction is to pursue transparency on one hand, and empowerment and greater public awareness on the other. Tools to enable greater sharing of environmental processes would be excellent, as long as there are precise rules of engagement and a clear decision-making process.

Major crises and minor emergencies (small spills, fires, shoals of dead fish, torrential rain): should they all be managed in the same way?
There are differences. In a major crisis, the time factor and the coordination network are much more critical. What doesn’t change is the sequence that should be put in motion in relations with the community: widespread information, preferential relations with institutional bodies, advice about recommended behaviour, activation of listening channels and information collection from the ground, control and facilitation of informal communication, motivation of decisions and follow-up.

In a crisis, response time is critical, but there is a multiplicity of stakeholders and it’s not always possible to satisfy everyone immediately: how can this complexity be managed?
Once again, a well thought-out instrument panel can reduce complexity. And in any case, procedures should also be established to manage negative responses to requests that are isolated or not pertinent, and give preference to responses aggregating similar or common situations. During an emergency, not communicating is a mistake, but so is communicating too much and badly.

What is your general impression of the communication capabilities of the environmental agencies? What are their strengths and where is there room for improvement?
The environmental protection agencies need to observe and measure community requirements carefully in terms of access to environmental information. Structured listening to the requests of individuals – not just those of lobby groups – is the only way to fine-tune external communication on environmental questions. The goal is to divulge data and knowledge by interacting with interlocutors (not just providing them with information): this shortens distances and gives an insight into experiences from which to build greater awareness about questions that are undoubtedly complex and sensitive. Although the various roles should be respected, I believe that all parties involved in environmental communication should adopt a similar approach: abandon standardised routines and embrace a path based on listening, dialogue, feedback and continuous review. In other words, the environmental agencies need to develop a new culture before they even start thinking about a particular communication tool: that’s the real challenge.

For more on this subject, go to the interviews with Giovanni Landolfi, Giampietro Vecchiato and Sergio Vazzoler on the Arpat News website.