The Coast of Death is a puzzling landscape of cliffs that protect the north of Spain. Every day, its rocks and gorges challenge the Atlantic Ocean, anxious to invade the coasts of Galicia with an army of waves and storms. In its waters hundreds of sunken ships lie sleeping, along with thousands of legends about treasure that never arrived in port. Its most recent catch is the “Prestige,” the oil tanker whose entrails, strewn with black gold, split in two parts on November 19, 2002. The children of this catastrophe leapt into action with their boots and nets, even with their bare hands, in aid of the sea, its fish, its shellfish and the beaches.


The Spanish government waited a week to send a representative to Galicia, 10 days to name someone in charge of the crisis team, and 22 days to appear before Spain’s congress to explain how it planned to handle the crisis. (One of its decisions –  to move the tanker away from the cost – proved very controversial.) When, on December 14, Prime Minister José Maria Aznar visited Galicia for the first time, the black tide had already attacked Cantabria and the Basque Country and stained the entire northern coast of Spain. By then the hurricane of public opinion and communications media had transformed the “Prestige” into one of the largest executive crises of Spain’s executive branch.


The Prestige, a Greek tanker sailing under Bahama’s flag, was transporting oil for the Swiss branch of a Russian petrol company. While its sinking resulted in severe damage to the region’s fishing and tourism industry, it is not yet clear who will be responsible for the clean-up and associated costs. Experts predict that the Prestige case will eventually be solved in an international court. Until then, the Spanish government has taken responsibility for organizing economic aid and other resources. The focus of the current criticism is on the government’s handling of the catastrophe.


“The government waited too long to react,” says Antonio Cobelo, vice-rector of academic planning at the Universidad Antonio de Nebrija and a doctor in information sciences. “In the event of a crisis, reaction time is very important and, in this case, it was too long. I don’t know if it was because of a shortage of information or because of an error in analysis. But it’s clear that, at the onset, the government tried to get people to believe that nothing had happened.”


The government was one of the big losers in the disaster of the Prestige. The black tide splattered its image as well as its capacity for managing crises. “In this type of situation, the name of the game is taking responsibility,” emphasizes Joaquin Garralda, professor at the Instituto de Empresa. “For that reason, it’s so important to respond in time …There are two decisive factors: reaction time and having everything prepared.”


Along with leaks from nuclear and electric plants, disasters such as the Prestige call for more than following manuals about behavior or communication. That’s because this sort of event immediately captures the attention of the media. Pictures of fishermen, using their own hands to pick up fuel oil, made their way into homes around the world. Thousands of volunteers traveled to Galicia in an attempt to stave off the black menace, considered one of the largest environmental catastrophes that Spain has ever lived through.


Take Action, Rather than Look for Guilty Parties

In less than one month, the Coast of Death passed from being anonymous to becoming a national conflict that involved several nations. Even the European Union found itself splattered by the tragedy. Because the petroleum was located in waters that border Spain and Portugal, the governments of both countries argued over who was responsible for cleaning up the spill during the first days, before the actual sinking. Consequently, more time was spent figuring out how not to get involved in the crisis than in trying to find a faster solution.


“In this type of situation, you shouldn’t lose time looking for guilty parties,” states Garralda. “You have to begin to make decisions from the outset. In fact, one of the most common mistakes is to become embroiled in polemics, trying to evade responsibility.” However, he goes on to say, in the case of the Prestige, “there was an aggravating circumstance: No single company was responsible for the ship. The flag was from one country; the ship was of another nationality. Nor did the country that was going to receive the petroleum consider that it was their problem. All the accusations wound up being directed against the captain of The Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, who was imprisoned on charges that he committed “environmental crime” and disobeyed Spanish authorities.


Nevertheless, Garralda champions the idea that there is no point losing time looking for guilty parties. To illustrate how it is more important to take action, he recalls the case of Johnson & Johnson, the U.S.-based health care products manufacturer. “Tylenol, J&J’s famous drug for treating headaches, was sabotaged one night when someone put poison in several Tylenol tablets. J&J decided to withdraw Tylenol from the market. J&J didn’t lose any time trying to discover which consignments of Tylenol had been poisoned and which had not. A major part of its sound decision-making was that, for J&J, uncertainty was not an option. From that moment on, confidence in J&J grew. Shortly after, the company brought Tylenol back under a new label. That permitted J&J to rebuild trust because people realized they were dealing with a different batch of products.”


Garralda outlines five errors of communication in the case of the Prestige. “First, the government didn’t contact the necessary channels of communication from the moment the ship began to heel over, in order to assure that the maximum number of authorities were informed. If information arrives fast, then decisions can also be taken fast. That was the second failure; they acted too late. Moreover, the [response to the public] must be transmitted by a senior official in the government. Mariano Rajoy, Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, did not place himself at the head of the crisis team until 10 days later. The fourth failure was that they lost too much time looking for guilty parties, which slowed down the decision-making. Finally, in situations like this, you have to communicate all the steps you are taking. This confers credibility, focuses the attention of public opinion, and emphasizes those areas where things are working out well.”


The Spanish government probably lost the most credibility with the first messages that it sent out. “It committed a very human error, for a short period of time, in trying to cover up the problem,” says Garralda. At the end of November, when the first black tide had splattered the coasts of Galicia, the government refused to talk about black tide until the public accused it of underestimating the problem. “Mariano Rajoy was saying that he could not use that term [‘black tide’] at the same time that he was watching petroleum invade the beaches on television,” recalls Cobelo.


“Ordinarily, when Federico Trillo, Spain’s defense minister, uses the phrase, ‘the Galician beaches are magnificent,’ it might be considered a mere anecdotal detail,” adds Cobelo. “But under these circumstances, using that phrase was a huge mistake. Perhaps Trillo meant it in a way that was low key, but the phrase was immediately misinterpreted in the communication process, depriving the executive of credibility.”   


Adding to the executive branch’s apparent lack of concern was the disappearance of Manuel Fraga, who was in charge of the Galician government, which makes up a branch of the same political party as the central government. During the first week of the conflict, Fraga didn’t get to the beaches; he wasn’t even in Galicia. The communications media said that he had gone hunting, which made people angry. Afterwards, the Galician politician said that he had been in Madrid, meeting with his top person in charge of the environment. True or false, the public didn’t believe these explanations.


One area where the government acted decisively was the economic assistance it provided for people damaged by the crisis. During the second week of the conflict, considered a crucial time, the government allocated 42 million euros for the catastrophe and approved the first assistance for the victims. During this same period, Fraga recognized that the government’s decision to keep its distance from the ship had not been a correct one.


“In the United States, when you ask forgiveness, people infer that you are recognizing your responsibility and then you open the door to denunciations,” suggests Garralda. “In Europe, on the contrary, the legal system is different, making it easier for companies and governments to apologize. In the case of the Prestige, people were waiting for a clear sign that showed the authorities were worried, as well as the recognition that they had made mistakes.”


Political Opportunity

It wasn’t until December 19 that Prime Minister Aznar acknowledged in public the government’s errors in managing the catastrophe. Two days later, he appeared for the first time before Congress. On December 14, a month after the sinking, he visited Galicia. “The whole world was surprised that Aznar waited so long before appearing. Only a few months earlier, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had won an electoral victory because of the rapid way he responded to floods that shook his country,” says Garralda.


At a time when Germany’s electoral campaign was in full swing, the country was shaken by a powerful storm that set off serious flooding.  From the first moment, Schroeder traveled to the affected areas. He set up a working group for the crisis that measured the extent of the damage, and prepared for the necessary assistance programs. This approach permitted Schroeder to emerge strengthened by the crisis. Likewise, Rudolf Giuliani, mayor of New York City, knew how to take command when faced with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


All these examples demonstrate that, depending on the way managers take action, an alarming situation can even wind up strengthening the role of those in command. “In crisis situations, the hard part is facing up to them. The problem doesn’t lie in the technical part of communicating but in the psychology of facing up to a crisis when you are responsible,” emphasizes Cobelo.


“The fact that Aznar did not show up [in Galicia] from the first moment is a mistake that stems from his long reaction time to the shock. [At some point,] he had let too much time pass,” Cobelo adds. However, after the president’s visit to Galicia, the government began to take a much more active stance. Nevertheless, Aznar was unable to avoid continuous attacks from the opposition. In addition, he faced the media-savvy Nunca Mais (literally, “Never More,” or “Never Again,” in the Galician language), a movement created in order to demand assistance and prevent similar catastrophes from happening again.


“The reaction time of Nunca Mais was extremely short. Practically from the beginning, they signed up advertising people to take charge of designing their flag,” says Cobelo. A black background, traversed by a blue Galician stripe, embraced the inscription ‘Nunca Mais’ written in white. This flag was converted into the symbol of the people who, day after day, flooded the beaches of the north to assist in the clean-up task.


This tide of volunteers, as well as the actions of Nunca Mais and the global staying power of the conflict – which reverberated throughout the worldwide media – marked a new direction for the government. After Aznar’s visit, as the third black tide was shaking the coast, the government began to take a more active approach.  On December 23, it promised assistance valued at 230 million euros. Three weeks later, it calculated the cost of the disaster in billions of euros. And 10 days after that, it approved an economic recovery plan for Galicia valued at 25 billion euros.


In this post-traumatic phase, the media began to devote a great deal of attention to the disaster. This allowed the government to finally take the initiative and focus its messages on the speed of its economic response. Then, while the wound of the Prestige was still open and bleeding petroleum, a frigate called “Nautille” sank in the extreme south of Spain, off Almería. “In this case, the Government acted very well. At once, it dispatched a representative who took charge of the recovery efforts, worked in cooperation with experts and got close to those who were affected. This gave people a more human picture [of the government], and showed that they had learned their lesson,” says Garralda.


Today, three and a half months after the catastrophe, the shellfish gatherers have returned to the coast to watch each dawn, clad in their work boots and traditional outfits. The volunteers are still arriving at the beaches, although their groups are smaller and they are coordinated by the local government. The army, which at first stayed outside the conflict, now struggles to lift off the crust of petroleum that covers the most dangerous cliffs of the Coast of Death.


Gonzalo, one of those thousands of anonymous volunteers, leaves Galicia with the sad look in his eyes of someone who knows that this problem remains unresolved. Although the waters have turned blue again, the depths of the sea retain, in their entrails, the two halves of the Prestige. Scientists assert that its hull will break in 23 years. Until then, the government has confidence that, using pumping devices, it can extract the black gold that is still inside.