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Widening our Flashlights: Brazil as a Case Study for PR Strategists

Sean Silva

Being Brazilian, I often get asked about this year’s Olympic Games being hosted in Rio de Janeiro. People ask whether they’ll happen, how the country is going to pull it off, where the Olympic Villagers are going to sleep and some, of course, will ask the occasional zinger about the current state of Brazilian soccer (this author kindly reassures you that Brazil is still the winning-est football nation of all time). 

However it’s important when talking about Brazil that we widen the lens of our flashlights beyond this year’s Olympics. In reality, Brazil is facing:

  • Rampant corruption in both the public and private sectors that has led to the ousting of the nation’s president, the removal of its Speaker of the House, and dozens of other top-line executives across the public and private sector being jailed, including the indictment this week of a former planning minister for embezzlement of over R$100 million (U$30.5M) while in office.
  • An Acting President under heavy criticism for implementing a cabinet with no females or minorities, eliminating the previously-instituted cabinet committee of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights, and appointing as its Head of Agriculture a former Greenpeace Golden Chainsaw Award winner, given to an individual who most contributes to destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
  • An economy that has had three different finance ministers in the past 19 months and is struggling to regain its footing amidst sagging commodity exports, issues with inflation, currency fluctuations, and general monetary policy uncertainty. This has caused international companies to exit the region, and many local companies to file for bankruptcy, bringing additional costly litigation into what is already an extraordinarily complex judicial system.
  • A flood at the Bento Rodrigues dam that spilled 60 million cubic meters of iron waste into the ocean and is arguably the worst environmental disaster ever in a nation that, like many countries, is dealing with the Zika epidemic.
  • And, yes, that big sports event where the rest of the world comes to visit for three weeks.  

Now, to uncover the silver linings. One might interpret the current political cleansing as a positive, and Brazil’s engaged public has been very communicative about their displeasures, which you cannot say about every country. Furthermore, a recent Datafolha poll showed Brazilians are the most optimistic they’ve been about the economy since 2014. And while some foreign companies are exiting the region due to current circumstances, others with a medium to long term horizon view it as a chance to invest. But the very conflicting nature of the headlines you just read epitomize the whipsaw feeling of tracking the nation’s current events, bringing about a bigger picture for us as PR professionals to be mindful of. 

PR is so often about perception and awareness, but that all gets diluted when you don’t control your message. Brazil has in many ways lost control of its message, and its plethora of unofficial and conflicting spokespeople and news reports have fractured the nation’s identity and created uncertainty as to which public statements carry any form of merit. This creates a communicative cancellation of sorts, opening the door for less qualified voices to amplify their unverified information, further compounding the problem. 

The action for PR professionals, then, is to think more as all-encompassing strategists, and less as event-driven, reactionary practitioners. Don’t just analyze Brazil on a single event, but take a step back and understand the factors that impact the event itself.   

In other words, if you really want to understand Brazil, start with the burning Amazon rainforest, not the Olympic-colored trees. 

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