International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



Public Communication: Small Formats Can Have a
Big Impact on Disaster Prevention

Vicente Brunetti
Researcher and International Consultant on Educaction and Communication

1. Communication remains a prisoner of the Military-Industrial Complex and the Disinformation Industry.
Paradoxes abound in the field of communication, which is still being exploited by the Disinformation Industry—otherwise known as news and entertainment—in the hands of powerful groups who manipulate it to increase their profits.

Advances in communication resources are not the result of love for life or science. The real engine of most communication formats in the Military-Industrial Complex, where life, as a value, takes a back seat to death, conquest, domination and exploitation. This happened in the case of photography and the cinema,[1] radio,[2] television, video, computer networks such as the Internet and Internet 2, and email.[3]

2. Peace and health do not have special correspondents or spokespersons.
UNESCO’s charter, from 1945, claims that wars “begin in the minds of men”, hence “it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. But UNESCO’s actions and messages clash with the arms race of a Culture of War promoted by the interests of the Military Industrial Complex, as well as by exclusion, fanaticism, intolerance, and organized crime.

Inspired by the mandate of its 1948 Constitution, the World Health Organization (WHO) strives to ensure that peoples enjoy the highest possible level of health through better information, education, nutrition, immunization and other preventive activities. These actions and messages, however, are contradicted by those of an industry that views even life-saving drugs as a business and promotes self-medication with the complicity of certain sectoral authorities and almost all the mass media.

3. Four out of every ten Central Americans and Mexicans are obese.[4] Is health detrimental to multinationals?

According to the CNN news network, a study carried out in the United States and published by British medical review The Lancet revealed that drinking an extra carbonated soft drink per day increases by 60% the risk of children becoming obese.[5] Another study by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest showed that consuming these soft drinks increases the risk among teenagers of suffering from osteoporosis, dental cavities, and other diseases.

In opposition to public health in Central America, almost all the mass media promote war and harmful products such as tobacco,[6] alcohol, and greasy junk food.

Many journalists and public authorities such as legislators, magistrates, ministers and mayors, are servile public consumers of these products and will defend them, particularly when there are cases of contamination or other public health issues.

4. The media are but a small fragment of communication. Life itself is communication.
Every time the imperial sabres rattle, the front pages and radio and television outlets rattle accordingly. Even MTV and the Discovery Channel broadcast the images and reports of the major news agencies, some of which employ psychologists and military specialists who fabricate headlines and content that subliminally glorify the military.

We need a multidimensional definition of communication to free it from its current shackles and find out which formats are best suited to reducing poverty, racism, ignorance and war mongering, by giving priority to intangible community capital as the key criterion for safeguarding life and freedom, education and knowledge, health, citizenship, and prevention.

When UNESCO’s Regional Communications Office for Latin America organized in 1995 the Quito International Seminar on Population and Natural Disasters: the Role of Communication, it made a modest but visionary contribution to the systematic application of public information and educational communication for disaster reduction, integrating both large and small formats in the projects designed for the most disaster-prone countries in the region.

Alejandro Alfonzo, later head of this Office in Panama, promoted a great deal of the responses offered by UNESCO after each major disaster.[7]

In physical, chemical, biological and genetic terms, communication is the basic mechanism of life.[8] This holistic view of the processes than maintain the chain of life on earth, the biosphere, sees communication as capital, as the common heritage of all living beings.

In social, cultural, symbolic and relational terms, communication is the basic component of the cultural matrix of a society of knowledge, and it is needed for the full exercise of human rights, freedom, justice, equity and solidarity in democracy. It cuts across the formal and informal learning process and the construction of citizenship, and is fundamental to peaceful coexistence. It can convey needs and contribute to their satisfaction. Communication is a right, a good, and a social need, culturally appropriate for responding to disturbances such as natural hazards, technological disasters and armed conflicts, and a key component of sustainable development.[9]

5. Not too long ago, learning how to read and write was a crime. Today, the first email generation has emerged.
The following is a report from 1804: “Ambrosio Millicay, a mulatto worker from Catamarca in the service of the Spaniard Nueva y Castillo, was punished in the city’s main square by the municipal authorities, accused of having learned how to read and write.” In Latin America today, on average, out of every 100 individuals, 70 listen every day to the radio, 30 watch television, 10 read at least one newspaper, and six connect to the Internet.[10]

We are witnessing the arrival of a generation unlike any other, one that thanks to email is reverting the old trends in writing and reading, in which even those who were able to read were essentially consumers of information. This new generation is in the daily habit of reading and writing with a frequency unknown to their predecessors, with the exception of professional writers and media workers.

This new way of reading and writing has had a significant, although as yet unmeasured, impact that already overwhelms the resources, knowledge and patience of their teachers. If we all help, the first email generation may be able to learn how to think, and how to think better.

6. Awareness-raising efforts geared towards disaster prevention and mitigation have heretofore privileged large, mass formats over smaller formats.

To make matters worse, advertising agencies often take the audio from television spot ads and broadcast it over the radio, as if each medium did not have its own communicational specificities.

In Latin America, according to a UNICEF study, young people believe they are mistreated by the police, question the integrity of judges, and do not trust television or the press.[11] It is ironic, then, that it should be these media that are used when trying to convey prevention messages. Meanwhile, when disaster strikes, people manage to communicate and express their needs without having access to commercial broadcasters or the pages of large newspapers.

An excellent example, given its conclusive results, is the OAS’ Program for Flood Vulnerability Reduction and the Development of Early Warning Systems in Small River Basins, which uses the slogan Better Safe than Sorry! Ordinary people understand quite well what it means to “be sorry”, and the use of a common saying helps to drive home this preventive message.

What often still fails, however, is the choice of the proper channel. It is important to make sure that the media employed do reach the intended audience, that the message is understood, and that the right response is the result.

Take the humble poster. I have seen posters from several countries in Central America and South America that warn about the consequences of a major earthquake. They were large, colorful, and highly visible. They might have been improved, say by using images that would convey the message even to those who cannot read, but they are clearly a useful medium for prevention messages.

Existing official channels, though not ordinarily viewed as “media”, can also be effective. The Ministry of Education can organize a national prevention campaign involving all primary and secondary students and teachers. Since not all children in Latin America go to school, it could be arranged for each student to work with a child who does not enjoy formal schooling. As part of such an effort, special education institutions can play a key role by multiplying the number of people who can use sign language or know how to deal with the blind and others who, on top of their disabilities, must endure the ignorance and incomprehension of “normal people”.

From this perspective, even small formats such as mime, street theatre and even puppetry can be used effectively. The same goes for pop songs, radio soap operas, even graffiti. All that is needed is creativity, imagination, and appealing to all forms of intelligence, as well as to humour and tenderness.[12]

7. Public service announcements are not distorted by the search for profits (advertising) or the need to promote a particular political or religious agenda (propaganda). Their potential is therefore enormous for raising people’s awareness without promoting uncritical acceptance of any given course of action, while mobilizing the population and achieving sustainable societal change.

One good example is CARE’s message: “At CARE, we are changing the face of the world. How many lives can you change today?”. Others include announcements by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), most of the PAHO/WHO messages during the 2000 hurricane season, and the campaign by the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) in the Discovery Channel warning parents of the dangers of unsupervised TV watching: “Children do not always know what they are watching. That is why you should know it.”

The effectiveness of such messages is underlined, ironically, by their appropriation and distortion by commercial interests.[13]

We must counter the purely economic criterion of the Gross Domestic Product with the more enlightened concept of the Intelligent National Product, even the Intelligent Regional Product. To err is human, perhaps, but public information and educational communication can show us that doing the right thing is also human. Communication can be a useful tool for disaster reduction, bringing together governments, civil society, and all those who wish to promote positive change and greater equity. All that is required is that no communications format, however humble, be excluded as part of this effort.

Vicente Brunetti is an international researcher and consultant on Communication and Education specializing in Public Information and Educational Communication Strategies and Projects. For more information, please contact the author at

1 Simply recall how and why macro- and microphotography, high-speed film, infra-red night-vision lenses and high-sensibility film all developed.

2 The development of radio was accelerated for its early use in World War I. The medium was used intensely during World War II, and extensively during the Cold War and all subsequent wars, including the first one of this century.

3 It is essential to recall the military origins of the Internet and the development of the ECHELON intergovernmental espionage project, which intercepts telephone, fax and email communications and has been denounced by the European Parliament after it was revealed that is also used for industrial and trade espionage.

4 CNN, Daily Email News Bulletin, Atlanta, 19 October 2001.

5 CNN, Daily Email News Bulletin, Atlanta, 14 March 2001.

6 The film The Insider, with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, shows how tobacco companies claimed not to be aware of the addictive nature of nicotine, lying to the authorities and the public. Perhaps for this reason, the mass media have not devoted much space to this film, just as they have not in the case of the lawsuits that have been fought and won by tobacco users who were deceived by advertising that hid the addictive nature of nicotine, as well as the tobacco companies’ attempts to make the product more addictive by modifying its chemical composition.

7 After Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in October 1998, UNESCO and its country offices asked me and others to design a Sub-regional Project, as well as the National Project for Honduras and the National Project for Costa Rica. After the January 2001 El Salvador earthquake, the National Project for El Salvador was produced for the Universidad Centroamericana; after the June earthquake in southern Peru, a Preliminary Set of Recommendations and Strategies for the Special UN Inter-agency Experts Working Group was also commissioned.

8 Definition taken from Vicente Brunetti, La acción de la UNESCO en los ámbitos de Información Pública y Comunicación Educativa para Prevenir Daños causados por Desastres Naturales en América Latina, Regional Communications Office for Latin America, Panama, July 2001.

9 Definition taken from Vicente Brunetti, El Tótem de Rayos Catódicos. Manual de Comunicación para el Perceptor de Televisión, first print edition, Facultad Politécnica de la Universidad Nacional de Asunción–Swiss Government, Asunción, 1998; first electronic edition, Libroline. Alicante, Spain, 2001.

10 Brunetti, op. cit., July 2001.

11 Reported by the Third World Institute’s, the Uruguayan node of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), 12 October 2001.

12 Experts in the forefront of intelligence studies agree that there are at least eight: logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical, kinetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and emotional.

13 For instance, oil companies such as Shell and Chevron, after polluting and destroying large areas of the planet, now attempt to present themselves as progressive defenders of clean fuel technologies and environmental protection.