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In this blog series, we examine the differences in how people communicate across the globe.

Some of the recent, leading headlines reflecting the dynamics of the South American continent include everything from the race to prevent the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, to Argentina’s government debt default, and China’s role in supplying the continent with Covid-19 vaccines.

One country in specific – Chile – has gained global accolades for the speed and efficiency with which it has rolled out its vaccination programme. As of the third week in April nearly 41 per cent of its population had received at least one shot. Authorities project that 80 percent of the population will be fully vaccinated by June, putting the country on track to be one of the first to reach herd immunity. This is perhaps even more applaudable given that the country is weathering a constitutional crisis, and there has been continued social upheaval and mass protests triggered by inequality.

Due to these developments, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with Fernando Gómez, a PR professional based in Santiago. His firm, Azerta, specializes in working on cross-border transactions. He lived in the Netherlands for nearly two years while completing his MSc at the University of Amsterdam in Corporate Communication before relocating back to Chile in 2016.

Gómez has witnessed two recent, concerning changes in the way people access to media in Chile due to the pandemic and the preponderance of social media: 1) less emphasis is now placed on achieving balanced, objective reporting and 2) outlets have disappeared and the media landscape is now drastically smaller. This led me to ask him how he would currently characterize the differences in his profession between Europe and South America.

Gómez: “In my opinion, journalists in Europe are more committed to following the ‘classic school of journalism’, in the sense that they understand that it’s important to have both sides of the story. To have balanced sources. Of course there are exceptions. But when writing a big piece, if more space is given to one party, European journalists often still try to include a balancing voice in there.

“But in Latin America, what I have seen recently is that due to the online penetration of mass media, and the search for easy clicks (clickbait), this norm is sometimes thrown to the side. Often an article is published, featuring the input from merely one side of the story; when there is a reaction from the party representing the other side of the story, then a follow-up article will be published which, consequentially, has less impact. Basically, the journalists aren’t actively seeking to feature input from both sides at once. If the story is breaking, and they have only one side, one source, they will publish. This is something that I didn’t encounter in Europe. I tend to think that even though a journalist might have their own agenda, they still try to be as neutral as possible.”

This can be problematic, especially when the news can impact market movements and shareholder sentiment. Gómez has a recent example of such a scenario with a client that is a Chinese firm investing in Chile. According to him, his client pool has evolved in recent years to accommodate an increasing amount of foreigners who are actively doing deals in Chile. In tackling the pandemic, Chile is solidifying its swift return to its pre-pandemic position as the continent’s first destination for foreign direct investment (FDI). According to a report from the Milken Institute, Chile is ranked the top Country in Latin America for Foreign Investment, which can spur economic growth particularly in emerging economies. The impact of FDI can also introduce new elements of politicization to countries that are grappling with social stability – and it seems that it does reverberate into the media.

“In this particular case, the Chinese firm is a minor stakeholder in a Chilean company; suddenly news broke about the fact that one of the large shareholders was beginning to make moves, and there were rumours that there were bids to buy a board seat, without any sources on the record. For me, it was evident that these claims were unfounded and being made to influence shareholder sentiment using biased input that was not factual. The journalist reporting on the story knew that I represent the Chinese firm, and didn’t bother to check the factuality of the statement from the other party, even though I reached out to explain the assertions were not true”.

“I believe now it was all a smoke screen used in order to influence the stock price,” says Gómez, “and this shocked me.” What he describes is a textbook case of market manipulation, and very concerning. It seems that rumours are being printed often and an entire piece can be substantiated on anonymous sources or what Gómez called “sources close to those involved”. That is something that is simply not happening in European media frequently.

“Another thing that I have noticed, that is amazing to me is how – even before the pandemic – we were working with overseas clients that are making million dollar deals in Chile, but that had never set a foot in my country. They do everything remotely, and sometimes I am representing clients in the market via ‘three degrees of separation’ due to bureaucratic preferences. And the pandemic hasn’t stopped the deal flow – which is even stranger when considering that we are in the middle of a social revolt, and a constitutional referendum.” FDI flows remain fluid and this clearly has complex (negative and positive) consequences for Chilean society.  

“My feeling is the European media reports on facts as they unfold, and don’t print content based on speculation,” says Gómez. “Unfortunately, if someone really wants to meddle with a transaction here in Chile, there are many opportunities to influence journalists off the record.”

This leads Gómez to his next point about the biggest challenge impacting PR professionals in Chile currently.  

“There is a crisis occurring, and we are seeing outlets disappear. We have only three quality, national newspapers left in circulation. And those that remain are in complete financial ruin. They are no longer printing physical editions during the weekday; the content has largely transitioned to a digital platform. Veteran journalists are no longer employed, and their replacements are young, with little industry experience and knowledge. I noticed that the new generation of journalists don’t have the same focus (beat) that their predecessors did. Their mission is to publish multiple articles on multiple topics relatively quickly.”

A similar situation is occurring in other emerging economies and the global south. According to a report recently published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

COVID-19 has accelerated long-term financial trends that have beset journalism, in particular newspapers, for some time. Reduced revenues, particularly advertising income, have contributed to the closing of news outlets, as well as major job losses, pay cuts and furloughs.

There’s an irony here in that this financial free fall comes at a time when – in the early stages of the pandemic at least – many news outlets and media platforms have been enjoying record traffic. This consumption, however, was not enough to offset declines in revenue primarily caused by a sudden advertising downturn.”

Gómez believes that these changes are here to stay. “People are sourcing their information less frequently from national newspapers. For their day-to-day news they access Facebook and WhatsApp. Why should a firm allocate their advertising budget to appear in newspapers, magazines or radio when they can get higher impact and returns on Facebook for a fraction of the price?  It’s true that traffic to news websites is increasing, but this is because people are doing so to reaffirm positions already brewed via social media. This politicizes media outlets and incentivizes creating content that increases traffic. This can be at the expense of a balanced piece.”

In part II of the blog David Ortiz Castaño, a native Colombian now working as PR professional in Spain, will provide his insights and perspectives.

Written by Elizabeth James Tingen

Image: iStock