The Rouen fire: an environmental and public health crisis, and a political communication in perpetual failure
1st October’s protest march in Rouen, that saw about 2000 to 4000 people (as per sources) gathered between the Prefect office and the Town Hall to denounce the inadequacy of the information provided by the authorities on the consequences of the Lubrizol factory blaze, underlines the failure of the government’s communication efforts. The latter being only the latest in a long line of disappointing reactions to similar crises, the question that is raised is whether public authorities can actually have an efficient communication strategy in such situations.
They did not in any case, manage to reassure their citizens, particularly the residents of metropolitan Rouen. None of the government’s efforts, including a visit to reinforce the promise of total transparency by the Prime Minister himself, additional visits by five other cabinet ministers, multiple press conferences conducted by the Prefect and numerous press releases diffused notably by the regional health agency had much of an effect on public opinion. Provoked and stoked by the social media, the controversy continued to spiral virulently creating a general impression that the authorities were not revealing all the facts, an atmosphere ripe for the spread of rumors and even fake news.
The Chernobyl cloud syndrome
The primary obstacle in such a situation is linked to the public authorities’ dual attempt to, on the one hand reassure the concerned citizens, and on the other to implement the precaution principle. Such an attempt leads to taking safety measures that by default substantiate the presence of risks. How does one reconcile the reassuring speech of the Prefect given immediately after the catastrophe and stating that “the smoke cloud is not toxic”, with the successive preventive measures that are announced right after : the closing of schools and the suspension of harvests in the farms and gardens, such as the collection of milk for example ? How does one make it understood that it is not necessarily contradictory to say at one and the same time that there isn’t the risk of danger, and take preventive measures such as asking people to use gloves for cleaning or not allowing children to touch the soot ?
The more one insists on these preventive measures, the more the doubt takes root against the sincerity of the first declaration. “They are hiding something,” becomes the leitmotiv and the source of mounting worries.
The Chernobyl cloud syndrome announced in France as having stopped at the Belgian and German borders and then reappeared beyond the Pyrenees has continued to feed into the context having a general defiance of the government’s narrative and the spread of destabilizing rumors in a crisis situation.
We can ask ourselves whether the government’s decision do dispatch ministers in a random order, day after day, was not an error. Doubtlessly, the objective was to show an on-site presence, but it served mostly to foster the debate and revive the interrogations. At the same time, it also undermined the Prefect’s discourse and put him in the situation of being responsible for everything and in charge of nothing. Similarly, it would have been better to announce and take all the principle measures upfront and then decrease them with as soon as possible rather than doing the opposite which gave the impression that the measures were the result of conscience stricken authorities realizing only too late the amplitude of the consequences of the fire. Moreover so, as there was an obvious gap between the reassuring messages of the government and the visible reality of the on-site situation. How does one persuade a mother whose children are coughing and suffering from diseases, or a resident whose garden is covered in soot or dead bees that there is no danger?
Lack of empathy
The second difficulty lies in the intractable gap between the demands of the public opinion, rallied and amplified by the media, to have all the details on the causes and consequences of the accident and the time required by the authorities to understand the former and determine the latter. As for the causes, the public authorities can take shelter behind the tried and tested reply of: “the judicial process is going on, let the investigation take its course.” However, as for the consequences, how does one admit that the time taken by experts and scientists is not always one that is convenient for the media? How does one refuse information to the parents who are worried about the health of their children? How to avoid panic situations that can rapidly become viral?
From this point of view, the public authorities’ narrative doubtlessly lacked empathy. The decision to maintain a rational and technical discourse was a mistake. Not being in the situation to respond to all the queries of the residents of Rouen, the public authorities should have at least given recognition to their fears, accepted to hear them out and given them a response beyond a reassurance on principle. In this context, one is surprised to observe that it took seven days for the Government to put into place a hotline to answer all the questions of the residents. An official pamphlet explaining government actions and recommended preventive measures, distributed via letter boxes, or handed out outside schools, would have gone a long way in appeasing doubts and worries as well as building confidence in the government’s reaction.
In the same technocratic vein, the State delayed in drawing support from the local elected officials, particularly the mayors, some of whom were seen giving voice to the complaints of their electorate and at times even joining in the fray. Yet, the mayors should actually be the first force to mobilize and associate with governmental action in the time of crisis as was seen during the ‘yellow vests’ crisis.
Frustration and anger
The third difficulty was more circumstantial and embodies everything that one learns about crisis communication.
It is said, as a rule of thumb, that one crisis is followed by another and as it was, the passing away of the ex-President of the Republic Jacques Chirac and the following funerary rituals took up all media space starting Thursday evening, relegating the Rouen tragedy to the background. With an unexpected effect: generating the public opinion that top State leadership was too busy paying homage to Jacques Chirac to worry about what was happening at Rouen. A frustration that turned quickly into a highly mediatized anger starting Tuesday once all the official ceremonies and homages were over.
It is very difficult to recover rapidly from a badly managed crisis communication strategy and the public authorities have now, not many options apart from letting time do its work. But what is clear is that this crisis will leave profound footprint, reinforcing the loss of credibility of the official discourse thus making the handling of future crisis even more delicate.