The MV Rena oil disaster off the Bay of Plenty coast does not yet pose a threat to New Zealand’s clean green image, according to brand expert Professor Malcolm Wright.
But authorities need to act quickly or perceptions may change.
Contrary to other opinions, Professor Wright, head of Massey University's School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, says news coverage of the spill from the stranded container ship Rena could reinforce international understanding of New Zealand's pristine environment.
“Images of oil spilling into the usually clear-blue waters of Mt Maunganui and washing up on white sandy beaches would have sparked dismay around the globe,” he says.
“But this spill is not going to damage our international brand.”
Wright says when the Exxon Valdez spilled its oil in March 1989, people saw the damage but remembered the pristine Alaskan wilderness in which it had occurred.
“There may be a similar effect here,” he says.
“It will make people think of New Zealand and of the image of a spectacular environment that we project to the world.
“It is precisely because New Zealand has such wonderful beaches, wildlife and unique ecosystems that the oil spill is a tragedy.”
Wright says visitor numbers to Alaska had been flat in the four or five years before the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“But one to two years afterwards, visitor numbers started to climb. From 1990 to 1998, summer visitor volume grew from 690,000 visitors to 1.135 million.
“This is total growth of 65 percent, or compound growth of 6.4 percent per annum.”
Wright says brands are networks of associations in memory.
“Whenever those associations are activated, they are strengthened and can lead to other aspects of the brand coming to mind more easily too.
“So as the spill reminds people about New Zealand, and how beautiful it usually is, it is a slight positive rather than a negative for the brand.
“The damage only occurs if ‘new’ negative associations are formed. That won't happen here.”
However, Professor Wright says the message to the public remains fragmented.
“There seems to be a lack of PR crisis management and there is no consistent spokesperson from the government authorities.
“Of course, this may be a deliberate political strategy from government to minimise political contamination from the issue.”
He warns that if authorities are not seen to be acting quickly the oil spill could become reputationally damaging.
“If the issue drags on New Zealand may start to run the risk of becoming associated with environmental disaster.
“We’ve had a bad run: earthquakes, a coalmine explosion and dirty dairying issues.
“We need the authorities to show our brand is about responsible environmental management as well.”
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