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Letter from Brazil

by Sandra Porto

Sandra Porto started her career as a TV reporter for one of the subsidiaries of Band TV, and subsequently as a broadcaster in other independent production companies and TV networks. The experience obtained during this period gave her a deep understating of divergent layers of society, their needs and aspirations.

In 1997, she was approached by the local branch of Telebras (the then mighty state-owned telecommunications company) and was employed as a PR Officer at their Comms Department on the Mato Grosso do Sul State. The following year, the whole system was privatised and she then worked for Brasil Telecom, covering 33 per cent of the country's geographical area. She is currently PR Manager at Eucalyptus Clothing, London.

 

Brazil is a wonderful place to practice Public Relations. With a population of around 200 million, of which 62 per cent are under the age of 29, it is an extremely young country, open to innovations and with an increasing consumer power. Earlier this year the Brazilian government announced economic growth of 7.5 per cent during 2010 – the highest rate since 1986, and the fifth highest out of all the G20 countries.

Open and passionate by nature, the society is attracted by everything new, which is an advantage when implementing new concepts. As long as you have charisma and a solid knowledge of your subject, good results will be ensured.

One of the first lessons to learn is that broadcast TV is the strongest medium in Brazil. Do no expect to see free newspapers or affordable print as we find in the UK. Print media is often expensive and regarded by many as a luxury. However, the print media available is of excellent quality and will reach the thinkers and influencers in society, so it's really important to balance reach and influence.

Broadcast TV is incredibly influential on virtually all aspects of Brazilian culture and society. Brazilians discuss television programming and it is, for most, the primary source of information, regardless of socio-economic status. If it hasn't been on TV, it will hardly get noticed.

Take notice of Globo TV – the largest commercial television network in Latin America. Their programming is watched by an estimate of 120 million people daily. Even though other networks have strengthened their presence in the past few years and should not be neglected, if you plan a press conference and Globo isn't there, your event will be only half-successful!

Perhaps because of its young population, Brazilians are heavy Internet users. Brazilians simply love to be connected and social media is highly effective. Earlier this year, Brazil has been indicated as the second highest scorer among the BRICs countries on the Digital Inclusion Index, published by Maplecroft. The index measures the level of digital inclusion, considering factors such as access to broadband Internet and education, across 186 countries.

Brazilians are very hospitable and communicative. It is part of Brazilian culture to be accommodating and friendly; however, do not expect to be communicating in English unless you are in a global corporate environment. Spanish is widely understood but not commonly spoken. If you're planning a long-term stay in Brazil, investing in Portuguese lessons is crucial.

It is also extremely important to remember that Brazil is arguably the most multicultural country on earth. According to the Brazilian government, the country has the "world's second biggest black population after Nigeria, the largest number of people of Japanese ancestry outside Japan, and more people of Lebanese or Syrian extraction than the combined populations of Lebanon and Syria." The indigenous Indian population comprises more than 200 peoples. The slave trade in the 1800s and heavy immigration during the 20th century, greatly contributed to the country's diverse heritage. Robust numbers of immigrants leaving Europe (Western and Eastern) after the wars, settled in Brazil during the subsequent period. The 26 Brazilian states could be grouped by background, with mostly white people with German ancestry settling in the South; then a mix of foreign descendants, white, black, indigenous people and heavy European ancestry in the Centre-West and West. A strong black presence is to be found in the North-East and indigenous people in the North. Perhaps because of its rich mixed background, Brazilians are highly positive in their views on immigration. In a recent poll by Ipsos Mori, published earlier in August, 47 per cent of Brazilians believed that immigration benefits their society. It was the most positive view on immigration among the 23 interviewed nationalities.

Even from a Brazilian perspective, every state is like a small country – if not in language and currency, then definitely different in culture and views on what constitutes priorities. How do you understand each state and speak directly to the populations? As with HSBC, Brazil Telecom then undertook the vision to be the "world's local business".

After the privatisation of the telecommunication system, a fierce communications crisis followed as the transition was very unpopular and an incredibly hostile press challenged every attempt to communicate.

Following ferocious criticism from the media and population, Brasil Telecom decided to engage with the local population directly. The company swiftly implemented a competent social responsibility programme, encompassing social and cultural sponsorships. Millions of Brazilian Reais were invested in an area covering nine states plus the Federal District (comprising Brasilia, the capital of Brazil), an area then covering 23 per cent of the Brazilian population.

Following the companies' plans, I was sent to spend seven months in the Brazilian Amazon, more specifically on the Acre State. The area is widely known for the globally environmentalist and human rights activist, Chico Mendes, murdered by his opponents in 1988. The Acrean people are incredibly kind and humble but very proud and determined to stand for their beliefs. Unfortunately the privatisation, as in other parts of Brazil, was seen as detrimental for the country.

A hostile press and suspicious public waited to see how Brasil Telecom would engage. In order to connect with the population, we searched for areas where the company's contributions would be welcome and, in partnership with the local authorities, we developed two social projects involving disadvantaged and marginalised children. Engaging with the community and local authorities really changed the way the company was perceived.

The projects involved educating children and training them to distribute knowledge on how to avoid substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. There was also funding to sustain school programmes with extra curricular activities.

It was an arduous process but in the last month we were able to hold a popular event in the centre of the capital Rio Branco, in partnership with a local radio station. There was a big community street party, heavily attended by the locals. The negative perception was changed completely. The press no longer refuted our communications but relied on the company as source of information. Brasil Telecom was, finally, accepted as one of the locals.