Savvy President Woos Brazil

The leader of South America's largest democracy captures the attention of press and public

NOT every presidential photo opportunity is as simple as a handshake and a grin. Brazil's president Fernando Collor de Mello learned this lesson recently, the hard way. As part of his campaign against drugs, President Collor put on a police vest and torched a 1-ton pile of gasoline-soaked cocaine, marijuana, and ether. But without warning, the wind changed and the ether exploded, slightly roasting one side of his body.

``It looked like he was coming out of the fire,'' recalls shaken presidential spokesman Claudio Humberto Rosa e Silva, who was standing among the press corps.

The resulting photos of a fleeing Collor were just the opposite of the kind of exposure the president of South America's largest democracy needs to work up public support for his tough economic reforms.

Trial by fire is not Collor's usual public relations approach. But he recently curried favor among Brazilians by piloting a supersonic fighter plane and taking a striking in-flight picture of himself, in helmet and oxygen nozzle, that made Page 1 in many newspapers. He has publicly practiced karate, trained with the national soccer team, and gone for a submarine ride.

``He doesn't govern from the palace,'' says Cesar Maia, a begrudging admirer and federal deputy for the opposition Democratic Labor Party. ``He tries to be present at scenes where events are happening. He uses contemporary instruments in the content of what he says and the way he faces problems. He introduces the issues of ecology, technology, and whenever he gets involved, he tries to show efficiency, to solve problems with entrepreneurial agility.... He communicates directly with the masses.''

His message finds friendly ears, especially among the legions of poor who make up most of his 35 million electorate. A May poll of Brazilian voters found 74 percent of those surveyed supported his controversial economic plan, while only 18 percent did not.

Savvy press handling helped Collor jump from the governorship of Brazil's second-smallest state, Alagoas, to the presidency. Mr. Rosa e Silva, who was also his press secretary in Alagoas, says the secret there was to ``never permit the governor to appear on the television news without it being to communicate real achievements.... People think an excess of exposure is what makes a politician, but it's really quality of exposure.'' He adds that his boss ranked a mere 28th on a list of personalities who appeared most on television during 1988.

Collor's presidency is engaging, says journalist Augusto Nunes, ``after a bland president like [Jos'e] Sarney.'' Mr. Nunes is newsroom director at the daily newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.

Mr. Sarney, who did not come to the post by a direct vote, got high marks from the public at the start of his 1985 antiinflation cruzado plan, but set some record lows after the plan failed. He was preceded by 29 years of military rule, complete with press censorship. During the dictatorship, newspapers replaced censored articles with recipes, even on the front page.

Those long, dark years kept the Brazilian press and politics from growing and maturing. Today, under President Collor, both are beginning to take root and flourish.

Now, issues such as ecology, nuclear energy, land reform, Indians, and mining are no longer taboo, says Woile Guimaraes, an industrial videomaker and former top executive at TV Globo, Brazil's mega-network. The end of censorship and authoritarian government exposed many weaknesses of both the news media and politicians, Mr. Guimaraes says.

Reporters are learning to check facts with several sources, and interviewees are learning to lose their fear. ``You used to have one source, the government,'' Guimaraes says. The relationship between the government and the press, he and others say, is still somewhat too close. ``The idea that the press is at the service of the state prevailed during the authoritarian years and still holds,'' Guimaraes says. ``This is still in people's and companies' heads.''

Such was long the case at TV Globo, which reaches about 90 million of the country's 140 million population and regularly gets a prime-time audience of 80 percent of households watching television.

Owned by a family whose 86-year-old patriarch, Roberto Marinho, still commands the newsroom, Globo grew to be a virtual media monopoly during the dictatorship. The military, Guimaraes says, ``needed a national network to integrate the country. Globo fit like a glove for this. In turn, Globo needed [and got] state investment in telecommunications.'' The military also wielded power by giving out media operating licenses.

Part of the deal, Guimaraes and other journalists say, was to take orders from the government on how to cover the news. For example, he recalls that in 1984 a top official pressured Globo not to cover street demonstrations in support of direct presidential elections. But as the slant was obvious, the idea backfired, antagonizing viewers and advertisers. The incident is seen as a turning point in press-government relations, with Globo thereafter taking a more independent stance.

Even so, many Collor critics claim that Mr. Marinho's favorable press got the president elected. But his supporters say Globo decided on him late in the race, as the only option against a leftist opponent. ``No one is interested in remembering that when Collor got to 45 percent in the polls, [Roberto Marinho] was using all his strength and influence to get [Sao Paulo Governor Oreste] Quercia to the presidency,'' says Rosa e Silva.

Even while Collor got special attention from Globo, many Brazilian reporters made no bones about their political stripes. During the campaign that culminated in his election last December, many wore buttons for Workers' Party candidate Luis Inacio ``Lula'' da Silva. They also sang the Lula theme song to Collor, and even used press conferences as soap boxes.

Brazilian journalists, mostly young people, train on the job, because the legally required university course is poor preparation for reporting and writing.

Collor's recent brush with fire wasn't his first public relations mistake. Just after his new economic program was put into effect, local police decided to go to the daily Folha de Sao Paulo to investigate an advertiser's complaint about a fraudulent bill. Traditionally an opposition newspaper, the Folha read the police action as government pressure to support the economic program. The result was several weeks of anti-Collor reporting. One Page 1 photo of the president dressed in battle fatigues, on a visit to a remote area of ecological and strategic importance, was captioned ``Mussolini of the third world.''

BRAZIL'S president does know how to stay one step ahead of public opinion, though.

As the country's intelligentsia began to turn against him in recent weeks, he has periodically taken action to help the poor, including the creation of a ``Ministry of the Children,'' and steps to improve abysmal public health care. Public opinion survey results were key to his election and continue to play an important role.

``He is always in tune with what the population wants, he speaks the language of the people, says what people want to hear,'' says Rosa e Silva. ``So he keeps himself well informed about the people's problems and the solutions they want ...; they are a tool.''

Collor's promises to improve the lot of the poor are not easily kept, and this could eventually lose him crucial support. ``In politics, the magic of the politician is to capture a maximum share of the population by creating a minimum of expectations. But you have to increase expectations and there is a point of equilibrium in which you find the maximum you can achieve and the minimum you can promise,'' counsels Mr. Maia, of the opposition Democratic Labor Party.

The president's public relations approach is by no means fail-safe, analysts say. ``It gets tiring,'' says Nunes of O Estado de Sao Paulo. ``He will get off the front pages with these theatrics, because there just aren't enough sports'' for him to do. Still, Nunes says Collor will stay in the newspapers because ``he has content, and it doesn't matter if it's good or bad.''

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