Fanning the flames: when populism amplifies a corporate crisis

When the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed in August last year, killing 43 people, the bridge’s managing company was quickly blamed for its lack of maintenance and haphazard media response. However, there is more to the story than a case of mishandled crisis communications. Italy’s populist government used social media to amplify negative reactions not only towards the bridge builders but also at the heart of corporate Italy.

A t 11:36am on August 14, 2018, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed, dragging with it 48 cars and heavy vehicles. Forty-three people died, 16 were injured and 10 were pulled alive from the rubble.

It soon became clear that this tragic event had all the necessary ingredients to turn it into a particularly serious and long-lasting communication and reputational crisis.

(Main image: picture alliance / REUTER)

Preliminary investigation pointed to a combination of poor design, questionable building practices and insufficient maintenance, leading to a high “attribution of responsibilities” (as crisis expert Timothy Coombs would define it) towards the company in charge of managing the bridge: Autostrade per l’Italia (ASPI).

But there was more. Several special circumstances increased the newsworthiness of the disaster: videos and photos of the collapse and its aftermath spread via social media; the collapse of a central piece of the city was felt by many as vividly as a personal grief; everyday life was disrupted, given the fact that the bridge was used by commuters as a connection between the east and west sides of the city; and the event was unexpected, as bridges are supposedly designed not to collapse. 

The situation was exacerbated by the reaction of ASPI. It was undoubtedly poor, not helped by the particular period of the year (the height of summer vacations). The first press release issued by ASPI arrived five hours after the event; far too late. There was also a striking absence of compassion in the press release, with not a thought expressed for the victims, together with a rejection of any responsibility. “A tragedy downgraded into a dispute between engineers,” as Massimo Gramellini, a senior reporter and commentator, wrote on the front page of the next day’s Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-selling daily. Communications experts and media commentators asked whether ASPI was even prepared for a potential crisis, having made the most basic mistakes in managing the so-called “golden hour” after a crisis.

No surprise, then, that public anger grew forcefully and quickly, escalating in a few hours up to the family behind ASPI, the Benettons. World famous for their clothing company, the Benettons control a conglomerate with interests all over the globe, with revenues of around 12 billion euros (2017). According to public opinion, the 43 deaths were a sufficient reason to deliver an incontestable  verdict: Autostrade per l’Italia, and the family that controls it, were guilty. The media was flooded with a wave of public outrage. The daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano published a front page photomontage with Luciano Benetton, the head of the family, and the CEO of ASPI. In the background, the ruins of Morandi Bridge. The headline: “We pay, bridges collapse, they cash in”.

The Benetton family tried to react, but did so weakly: they kept quiet for two days, until a press release was issued by its holding company, Edizione. In an interview published three weeks later, on September 6, Gilberto Benetton, head of the family’s diversified activity, explained that the family’s silence was a sign of “respect for the victims”. His interview was seen as cold and distant, aimed more at reassuring investors and financial partners than at countering the accusations thrown at the family. Not by chance, the newspaper hosting the interview was Milan-based Il Corriere della Sera, and not, for example, the Genoa-based Il Secolo XIX, the popular heart of the local media. “One more communication mistake”, commented a senior reporter at the newspaper to me that same day. “A form of arrogance that will strike back”.

The populist touch

But could the crisis have been better handled? What if any of the directly involved companies – Autostrade per l’Italia, its listed parent company Atlantia, or Edizione – were prepared, empathic and quick to respond? Would that have stopped the tragedy from becoming a crisis?

Most likely, it would not. The lack of empathy, the delayed communications and cold tone of voice offered by those responsible for the bridge, as well as the impact of the event on public opinion, are not sufficient reasons on their own to explain the depth of anger behind the public’s reaction.

In fact, another phenomenon took place, which makes the Morandi Bridge case different from similar crises. Within a few hours of the collapse, representatives of the two populist parties ruling Italy – the anti-system Five Star Movement and the rightist North League – rode the wave of public feeling, feeding it with attacks on ASPI and the Benetton family itself. In a series of statements, government representatives called for top executives at ASPI to resign, threatening to revoke the company’s concession and impose a 150 million euros fine.

"Within a few hours of the collapse, representatives of the two populist parties ruling Italy rode the wave of public feeling."

Luigi Di Maio, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Five Star Movement, said that the company was “definitely to blame” while Matteo Salvini, the other deputy prime minister and head of the Lega Nord, demanded that ASPI “stop collecting tolls”. “[With] their full wallets (and their empty hearts) they should apologize and give us the names of those guilty of that disaster, who must pay. The rest does not interest us,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

The peak of the government’s attack arrived with a post on the official Five Star Movement blog, two weeks after the bridge’s collapse: “[Starting] from today, with a 10-year delay, all Italians know that the motorway concessions to the Benettons were a resounding gift that allowed them to be entrepreneurs not with their [own] capital, but with that of the citizens. […] The zero-risk entrepreneur is an all-Italian invention. […] Let's call it by its name: TAKERS1. The TAKERS have taken possession of the Italian infrastructure, paid by our grandparents and our fathers, and thanks to complacent politicians, have turned them into citizen money-eating machines. For a decade, the TAKERS of the motorways have made us pay tolls much higher than we should have, with the approval of the old parties’ bad politics. The TAKERS of the highways have done much less maintenance than they should have. In return, they took billions, until 2012 declared under a holding company based in Luxembourg. […] And talking about transparency: we ask the Benettons to make public the names of all the politicians and the newspapers that they have been financing during these years.”

The reaction of the ruling parties to the Morandi Bridge crisis comes as no surprise. North League and Five Star Movement acted consistently with their populist approach, while their communication techniques align perfectly with the classic concept of propaganda. As an Italian commentator wrote, attacking the Benettons allowed the populist government to reinforce its connection “with the belly of the country, the one that considers it unacceptable that a rich and privileged family of entrepreneurs is not responsible for disasters such as the collapse of the Morandi Bridge […].” It also enabled “the recovery of […] the narrative of a Movement that is opposed to blocks of power consolidated in the country.”2

"Attacking the Benettons allowed the populist government to reinforce its connection “with the belly of the country"

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines populism as a “political programme or movement that champions the common person, usually by favourable contrast with an elite.” In his essay The Populist Zeitgeist, Cas Mudde specifies that populism “is not a fully formed political ideology like socialism or liberalism – it is instead a thin ideology, made up of just a few core beliefs.” Propaganda, the favoured communication method of populism, is based on a few principles: simplistic and repeated answers to complex questions; constant identification of “one enemy”; citizens versus elite; the espousal of fake news; repetition of the mantra of “plain folks” – in other words, precisely the approach used by the Italian government towards the Benettons.

Needless to say, social media is the natural place were the above techniques have flourished. The Five Star Movement’s powerful, influential online platform Rousseau, a tool launched in year 2016 to develop what they call the “Net Democracy”, one of the pillars of the Movement’s philosophy, is well known. Less well known – at least before August last year – is the tool developed by the Lega Nord Party. In the weeks following the collapse, certain media – both Italian and international – pointed out how Matteo Salvini relies on a digital communication mechanism and software called The Beast: a system, according to Italian daily La Stampa, that “decides the far-right minister’s social strategy accordingly”, with the objective of bringing “people’s negative feelings out and have them amplified on the social platform”. Sometimes on the borderline of legality: the Beast “scientifically analyses thousands and thousands of the best-performing posts and tweets, as well as gathering data on what kind of people have interacted with those posts. Then, messages and keywords are put together, ready to be spread on Facebook”. The concrete goal: to “launch strong messages, squeeze out of the public opinion its ‘negative feelings’ – anger, fear and aggression – so as to lower the guard of those who listen”.

When public opinion is aligned behind one single belief (a “just cause” to condemn) and against one enemy (as happens during times of war), it is difficult to oppose it. Sometimes, sad to say, the only way is to run away, which is probably why rumours have recently emerged – unconfirmed, probably untrue – that the Benetton family is considering whether to loosen its business ties in Italy.

"When public opinion is aligned behind one single belief and against one enemy (as happens during times of war), it is difficult to oppose it."

Moreover, the communications implemented by the companies involved after the collapse cannot be considered as an outright failure. Quite the opposite: two well-reputed communication agencies were immediately engaged, one to take care of the local communities – the mayor, victims’ families, authorities, evacuated citizens and of course the media, while the second, in Rome, managed both lobbying and social media activities. “It was immediately clear that there was a deficit both in relations with the political environment and in the way social media were used,” Gianluca Comin, founder of Comin & Partners, the company acting in Rome, told me. “Corporations are not immune to politics anymore, far beyond regulatory issues. At the same time, they must understand that a social media war machine has to be put in place, in peace time as well,” he added. This is what they are doing now. “With tangible results,” says Comin.

But there is still a long way to go. “Family name fell with a bridge” wrote The New York Times on March 8, over six months after the collapse. Although the Benetton family will certainly recover, I agree with Silvio Waisbord, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, when he writes in Communication, Culture and Critique (March 2018): “Critical communication scholarship needs to engage both with the rise of populism as well as the challenges for progressive communication, amid a toxic atmosphere of intolerance and the balkanization of the public sphere.” A tough lesson for those who act in the communication arena.

1  The Italian for 'entrepreneur' is 'imprenditori', from  the French Entreprendre 'undertake'. The Italian word 'prenditori' has thus been translated  into 'takers'.

2  Pietro Salvatori in the Italian version of the Huffington Post, 11 January 2019

Luciano Luffarelli

In addition to his current role as head of external communications and institutional relations at aircraft manufacturer Piaggio Aerospace, Luciano Luffarelli is also an adjunct professor of issues and crisis communication at the Milan-based Università IULM. Luciano started his professional experience as a business and financial journalist in Milan. After being appointed international press officer at Olivetti, he served as head of communication in Autogrill, Allianz-Ras and Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. He has also worked as a consultant: his latest job was at Edelman Italy, where he had been appointed vice president, financial and corporate communication.