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How to poison 700.000 people and live happy with it. A case study in crisis management

According the Italian National Institute of Health, about 700.000 resident of an Italian Region, Abruzzi, have been exposed to water polluted by an abusive chemical waste storage that the national newspaper Repubblica labeled as the biggest in Europe. Although the existence of the wastes was widely known since 1972, only in 2007 the public prosecution service started an investigation and now the criminal trial is likely to end in nothing. The statutory term that set the maximum duration of this trial is going to expire and then the court couldn’t be able to actually indict the responsible.

Apart from the legal issues, it is interesting to look at this incident from crisis management perspective.

Though the big corporation involved into the scandal and now tried in court have surely steamed up their spin doctors to properly handle the damage control, it can’t be said so about the local politicians reacted.

Whatever book you get on the topic advises you to check the facts, be transparent with the media, don’t hide things under the carpet, tell what you know, what you don’t know and what you’re going to do to fix the problem, protect your credibility and so on. But in this case, all of these suggestion haven’t been followed. Neither the longstanding politicians who occupied the core seats during the last forty years  nor the law enforcement accounted for their lack of control, and when the media started inquiring the main reaction has been to let the bucks slip on somebody else’s shoulders, releasing vague and contradictory statements and avoiding to talk about the hot topic.

From a general crisis management theory point of view, the way the “stakeholders” handled this scandal can be qualified – to be gentle – as grossly amateurish, but a reality-check shows that the lack of enforcement of a crisis management plan didn’t affect the career of the most part of the involved people, some of those are now even running for a new term in the upcoming elections or still seating on their (power) chairs.

A possible explanation of this status quo is the lack of pressure from the information professionals. The local and national media failed to pitch high the facts so to ignite a burst of durable public outcry and protest. Far from the public scrutiny, the involved people fell into a convenient oblivion and didn’t feel compelled to devise a properly arranged defensive strategy.

Once again, this story shows that Information is Power.

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