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How to Effectively Manage a Crisis but Still Miss the Point

Co-authored with Iginio Gagliardone

Even for George Bush's careless reaction to Hurricane Katrina, it would have been hard to imagine him telling the thousands of victims made homeless "it's like a weekend of camping." But that was what Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi said on the German television, NTV, about the more than 30,000 people whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake that struck the center of the country. A day before, he similarly suggested that the residents leave the wreckage of their homes, and the on-going rescue effort, to "go to the coast, it is Easter. You should take some time off. We will pay for you."

The international media cried outrage. But these episodes were scarcely mentioned in the domestic media. Even the leftist papers such as La Repubblica passed over it as news. And the Democratic Party affiliate, L'Unità, framed it just as yet another gaffe.

A comment on a Huffington Post news article argues that the reason the Italian media have been ignoring these inappropriate comments is because the international media is taking the quotes out of context. But a more likely explanation for the silence is the adversarial relationship the media, and especially the press, have developed with the prime minister. The Italian media are embroiled in such a complex and delicate dance they have to choose their battles carefully. Berlusconi has been very successful in disarming opposition voices by claiming to be unfairly persecuted. Many journalists operate with a limited amount of 'critical capital' to expend. They are well aware that the government will immediately reply to any criticism by suggesting they are exploiting the tragedy for political ends. So in an effort to avoid further polarizing the political environment during a delicate time, journalists choose to self-censor.

In contrast from George Bush during Hurricane Katrina, on a personal level Berlusconi did everything right. He quickly canceled his trip to Moscow, he immediately visited the site of the devastation and he mobilized all emergency services to work at full capacity. But similar to George Bush, he exhibited a remarkable inability to empathize and see things from perspectives other than his own. What really mattered to the Italian prime minister was that "he did well" rather than understanding what his fellow citizens were going through.

The images from the state funeral on Friday marked a dramatic change of atmosphere as Berlusconi was clearly taken by the situation. After three visits to L'Aquila, he may have gained more of an insight into the struggles of the people. It may also be indicative of a greater ability to connect with the tragedy. But after the funeral Berlusconi made yet another awkward suggestion, "offering his houses" to the homeless. While many Italians made a similar offer, as the richest man in Italy who happens to be prime minister, it had the appearance of the magnanimous King opening his private mansions to the people.

When handled well, leaders usually emerge from such disasters with significant political capital. Together, however, Berlusconi's comments are a worrying sign of the disconnect with reality that power can create. Perhaps by not reporting on the issue the press will be able to spend some of the critical capital it has earned on encouraging the prime minister to better understand his people.