Sunday, 18 May 2008

PR and the Management of a Real Crisis

The date of 5/12/2008 will be burned into the minds of many Chinese in much the same way as 9/11 is remembered as the day the World Trade Center fell. The 12th May marked one of the largest earthquakes to hit China in the last three decades, however what amazes me is what happened afterwards, especially in a semi-closed economy like China. Within four days of this natural disaster an amazing RMB6.023 billion (USD860 million) in aid was raised to provide relief to those affected by the Sichuan earthquake. ( Another amazing fact is that most of these donation were not from governments (who contributed RMB720 million) but by the general public. Domestic public donations totaled RMB4.9 billion and it is the first time in history that public donations have surpassed the Central Government donations.

The other astounding fact about this disaster for China is the unsurpassed amount of media coverage of the event. What seems to me like weeks of media coverage has really only been less than a week but through television, the internet and social media like twitter and blogs like the public has been able to track developments, understand the humanitarian effects of the disaster, see rescue stories and generally understand how people have been affected.

Surely both these factors are not mutually exclusive and it is a lesson of the effectiveness of Public Relations and a responsible reaction from media outlets who were given the freedom to report. On evening of the 12th May, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiao Bao was on the ground in Sichuan and addressing survivors and consoling children who had lost their family in the quake with a television crew. Within minutes footage of rescue efforts and the devastation in the quake effected areas were beam all over the world so that citizens & the public at large could feel the anguish suffered by victims of the quake. One of the first stories that made me physically cry and still now brings moisture to my eyes was the report of 900 children trapped by a collapsing school.

It was these stories, images and footage that made it easy for me to reach into my pocket to donate money to those whom I felt really needed it. And I am not a Chinese citizen.

The next news cycle that I recall was mostly about others who have donated. Stories about people lining up putting RMB100 bills into donations boxes across the country. Chinese communities in countries as far as Brazil taking collections for victims of the quake were played repetitively on television in all Chinese channels. This resulted in contributions from. not only those who can normally afford charity, but even children were reported to have broken their piggy banks to give to the needy.

Over the weekend, it seemed that the international media had had enough of quake news and were mostly reporting about the Bush visit to the Middle East, the continued mishandling of cyclone relief in Myanmar and H.R. Clinton's refusal to quit but, in what appears to be a final step in a masterful PR campaign, the Government has raised the flag above Tienanmen Square at half mast (something that has never been done before for civilian reasons), announced 3 minutes of silence across the nation at 2:28pm today, along with a three day nationwide ban on all entertainment media on TV and the internet to grieve for the loss of life.

When the world who is unaffected directly by this disaster forgets the emotion they feel now, we will look back and see a media campaign that enabled not only the 1.2 billion citizens of China but the World for a week to feel the empathy for the hundreds of thousands of people who will have to rebuild what is left of their lives. A campaign that made it easy for us to be charitable and hopefully a campaign that will make us remember how lucky we are.

In so many conferences that I have run and attended I have heard much about CSR and Social Responsibility but until now it has always appeared that CSR is just another way for business to justify what they do to make money. It is not until now that I have seen PR as a real tool of Social Responsibility. I hope that PR professionals will be able to see what a powerful tool they wield and that they will also have the opportunity to do something that is really worthwhile far beyond manipulating public opinion to protect corporate bottom lines.

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