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Communicating the risk: a lesson from the Carmel disaster

on Wed, 06/20/2012 - 17:38

Modern societies are exposed to different potential threats of various nature. It is thus fundamental to develop appropriate strategies to manage the information flow between the public and the institutions that have to handle a crisis. In order to do so, understanding merits and flaws of past cases of risk communication is of central importance. To this end, Anat Gesser-Edelsburg and Mina Zemach, from the School of Public Health of the University of Haifa, analyzed how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dealt with crisis communication during the terrible fire – the biggest in Israel’s history – that ravaged Mount Carmel between the 2nd and the 5th of December 2010.

Several studies agree that risk communication does not depend exclusively by the nature of the risk itself but also by the social and cultural traits of the public – their values, their symbols, their fears. Familiarity with these features, which compose the target audience’s narrative, is one of the main requirements for an efficient risk communication. Such a familiarity is then necessary to build trust between institutions and the public.
The researchers used different methods to understand Netanyahu’s approach to the problem: a rethorical analysis of his risk communication; a content analysis of the Israeli society narrative; a semiotic analysis of Netanyahu’s television appearances; an investigation of the reaction of senior journalists to the Prime Minister’s communication strategy; a public opinion survey about Netanyahu’s crisis management.
They conclude that Netanyahu’s risk communication was apparently effective, since he managed to minimize the information gap between the expert risk assessments and the public’s perception. Netanyahu did that without recurring to the ‘strategic ambiguity’ approach and by appealing on the main elements of ‘war rethoric’ and on some specific traits of Israeli society. His appearances during the fire has been highly evaluated by the public and led to the conviction that the country would be more ready to face a similar problem in the future. This strategy clearly proved to be effective in the short run but did not give answers to a crucial question: why was Israel unprepared to face such a disaster? Netanyahu avoided discussion of the past and focused on his role of problem-solving in the present, in order to avoid guilt and personal responsibility. Gesser-Edelsburg and Zemach propose to call this approach ‘cover-up risk communication’, to distinguish it from ‘strategic ambiguity’.
The authors also analyzed the role of the media which, despite criticism from senior journalists, mainly supported Netanyahu’s cover-up strategy. They also failed to maintain a constant information flow about the subject once the fire has been brought under control, thus contributing to create a communication vacuum that left many unanswered questions.

In conclusion, the case study of the Carmel disaster proved to be a good example of the main challenges that risk communicators need to face: even if the ‘cover-up’ strategy used by Netanyahu was effective to build Prime Minister’s credibility, it was limited to a ‘here-and-now’ solution that did not contribute to promote the well-being of Israeli citizens. Also, the role of the media in this case study proved to be insufficient, since they merely provided Netanyahu with the televised stage for his appearances and did not play the rightful role of the public’s watchdog.