A Country in Dire Need of a Crisis Communications Plan

By Sara Staffaroni

The Hoffman Agency, San Jose

It is no surprise that Italians have mastered the art of tourism, food and fashion. But when it comes to preparing for a crisis, specifically a natural disaster, Italy is in dire need of help.

Let’s take a look at the 2009 L’Aquila, Italy earthquake. The shock of a 6.3 magnitude quake occurred at 3:32 a.m., killing 309 people and leaving 70,000 residents without a home. L’Aquila is known for its historical monuments, but the disaster did not spare them, damaging roughly 110,000 valuable buildings.

L'Aquila, Italy - crisis communications plan

L’Aquila, Italy post 2009 earthquake of magnitude 6.3 (Image via)


Following is an overview of the Italian government’s response to the crisis and the long-term consequences of these actions:

  • Running to the rescue: Less than an hour after the quake struck, Italy’s emergency response team Protezione Civile, arrived at the scene prepared with food and other utilities for search and rescue. They also organized “tent cities” to shelter those who lost their homes.
  • Promises made: The same day of the disaster, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced to the people of L’Aquila that the government will:

1.   Set up a special fund to reconstruct the destroyed monuments

2.   Reconstruct the city quickly (later experts determined it would take 10-15 years to rebuild the city with a cost of more than $16 billion)

  • Gratitude turns into resentment: The residents’ gratitude for the government quickly turned into distrust, after realizing that the Protezione Civile was taking much longer to re-build homes than anticipated. Those victims that were housed in newly built apartments complained of the lack of space, shops and other social organizations.
  • The revolt of the “tent cities”: Many residents of the “tent cities” felt that the Italian government was placing strict regulations on them, such as prohibiting residents to speak with outside media. As a result, the 3e32 activist group was formed, which aimed to share with the world the realistic view of L’Aquila’s condition, versus the mainstream media’s “false” representation (Berlusconi was accused of controlling the media’s messaging). Social media was the main communication channel for the 3e32.  
  • Indicting the messengers: In 2011, seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were indicted on manslaughter charges for downplaying the risk of the fatal earthquake in L’Aquila. Specifically, they were accused of telling local media that the previous six months of low-magnitude tremors were not a warning sign of a major quake. As a matter of fact, one of the defendants told the media to just relax and have a glass of wine. In 2012, they were all sentenced to six years imprisonment. 
Berlusconi in L'Aquila - crisis communications plan

Berlusconi shaking hands with rescue volunteers post L’Aquila, Italy 2009 earthquake (Image via)


There are many things that the Italian government should have done differently. For instance:

  • Tell the truth: As an Italian, I can admit that we often like to embellish things, but Berlusconi’s heroic promise of restoring the city quickly just set him up for failure.
  • Postcrisis communication is KEY: Communicating with disaster victims is just as important after a crisis, as it is during a crisis. The disappointment and frustration of the displaced residents and “tent cities” inhabitants shows that the Italian government did not involve the victims in any of the post-crisis decision-making, as they should have. 
  • Social media monitoring is a must: As soon as the 3e32 activist group began to gain the public’s recognition, the Italian government should have focused on monitoring its activity on social media and evaluating its influence capacity. As a matter of fact, the government should have made it a point to monitor social media for any discussions on the quake. Instead, by not responding to the accusations of the 3e32, Berlusconi sent the message to the public that the Italian government does not care about the victims of the L’Aquila quake.

For more detailed information on crisis communications with natural disasters, you can check out my thesis: Crisis communication & natural disasters: Communication plan for Rome, Italy in the case of an earthquake



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