October 20, 2014
Knowing Your Audience
One summer day in 2010, 33 miners became trapped 2,300 feet below the surface of the earth when the San Jose mine, an underground copper mine in Chile, collapsed (Weik, 2010). “Los 33”, as they became known, remained underground for 69 days (Kraul, 2010). This was not just news to the families of Los 33; the world was captivated. For 69 days, the rescue of Los 33 dominated international news, and for 69 days, the entire world wondered what it would be like to be one of Los 33 or a member of their families.
One party to the incident whose shoes were not theoretically walked in was the San Esteban Mining Company, the company that owned the San Jose mine and employed Los 33. Suddenly, the Chilean mining company was major international news and was responsible for disseminating information to the world. San Esteban also had to notify the families of Los 33 that their loved one was trapped nearly half a mile under the earth and they didn’t know when, or if, they would be coming home. In addition, San Esteban had to notify its remaining employees of the accident, and provide some measure of comfort that their lives were not endangered in their other mines. It was the difficult job of San Esteban to communicate this news effectively, compassionately and accurately in the face of the potential that the trapped miners would not survive. The company was making these communications while facing enormous scrutiny on a worldwide stage. In addition to these considerations, San Esteban had to consider the various cultural differences between the countries watching every moment of the tragedy, including social, cultural, lingual and religious distinctions.
It was crucial that San Esteban control the message to avoid panic and hysteria, so the Chilean government became the driving force in making these communications. The first hurdle that San Esteban and the Chilean government faced was to identify the audience for the various communications to ensure that the information was presented thoughtfully. These audiences can be classified into three broad categories: 1) Families of the trapped miners, 2) Employees of San Esteban, and 3) The worldwide news audiences. All three audiences needed to be kept apprised of the developments with a careful eye toward managing expectations, while providing reassurance and containing panic, all while facing the uncertainty of whether there would be any survivors.
It was crucial that the information be disseminated accurately and carefully, but each audience presented its unique challenges. Families of Los 33 would require more detailed information about the health and well-being of the trapped miners, as well as the moment-to-moment rescue attempts. Family members would also want to know how they can communicate with their trapped loved one. They would also need reassurance that all measures were being taken to keep the trapped miners safe and ensure their rescue. They would also need continual updates on the rescue operations. Employees of San Esteban needed less-detailed information about their trapped co-workers and the rescue attempts, but information related to operations of the company was also necessary, as well as the assurance of the safety of the other mines. Worldwide news audiences required a tertiary level of detail, but given the international fixation on the issue, it was difficult to keep the story from turning into global mania.
Due to the dangerous nature of their business, companies such as San Esteban face specialized communications challenges. Establishing an emergency protocol system in the event of a disaster would be crucial to successful communications in an event such as the Chilean mining catastrophe. Ensuring that updated contact information is maintained for each employee and identifying the best channel for that communication are essential. Depending