For half a century, Italy’s Benetton family has preached compassion through eye-popping ads for its eponymous clothing line that have included photos of a dying Aids patient, a black woman breastfeeding a white baby and, most recently, African immigrants being rescued at sea.

But now the Benettons themselves are the focus of public outrage after at least 43 people died when Genoa’s Morandi Bridge collapsed on Tuesday, threatening part of the family’s other, much more profitable business running airports, turnpikes and roadside diners from Santiago to Rome.

Leading members of Italy’s new populist coalition government have begun the process of revoking the lucrative toll license held by Atlantia SpA, the family-controlled company that operated the bridge, and want its chief dismissed. The threats triggered a selloff that’s wiped about 5.9 billion euros ($6.7 billion) off Atlantia’s market value in the less than a week, and fueled a backlash on social media, where scores of posts accuse the Benettons of pursuing profit over safety.

The Benettons didn’t comment until Thursday, when they issued a statement via holding company Edizione Srl. expressing “deep sympathy” for the victims of the disaster and vowing to work with authorities to determine the cause, while emphasizing that Atlantia and its Autostrade subsidiary have invested more than 10 billion euros in Italy’s roads over the past decade.

Funding Plan
Atlantia Chief Executive Officer Giovanni Castellucci followed up Saturday with a pledge to rebuild the bridge within eight months and provide an initial 500 million euros to alleviate the suffering of victims, not including possible direct compensation payments. That’s about half of what the company returned to the Benettons and other shareholders last year.

For Enrico Valdani, a professor of marketing at Bocconi University in Milan, the actions may not be enough to ease tensions with the government or win back the trust of the populace, much like United Colors of Benetton initially balked at taking responsibility for a cave-in at a Bangladeshi garment factory, where it sourced shirts, that killed more than 1,100 in 2013.

“They made a mistake by not promptly clarifying their alleged role in the fatal bridge collapse,” Valdani said by phone. “What the family now urgently needs is a straight plan of communication and crisis management. They need to demonstrate the company acted in good faith or admit any possible fault.”

A statement from the Benettons on Saturday, a day of mourning, said their thoughts were with the loved ones of the deceased. At the same time, Chairman Fabio Cerchiai said he personally hoped Castellucci, 59, will remain in the job, adding that the CEO has the support of the board and investors.

Representatives met with executives and lawyers on Friday to prepare the initial funding package, and there’ll be meetings in Rome this week to discuss the causes of the tragedy, according to people familiar with the situation.

Global Force
Long-celebrated in their native Treviso, a northeastern city of 85,000, for their rags-to-riches story, the Benettons last month suffered the loss of the youngest of four siblings who founded the apparel company in 1965, Carlo, who died of cancer at 74. He’s survived by Luciano, 83, Giuliana, 81, and Gilberto, 77, all of whom remain active stewards of the family’s various investments.

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