Digital gains credibility in Japan's PR market

As Japanese brands - and people - embrace social media tools, digital comms is now a major player in the PR sector.

The evolving PR landscape in Japan can be traced back about three or four years, says Ross Rowbury, president and CEO of Edelman Japan.

"A huge change began to occur in the way companies and organizations looked at the value that comms could bring, especially in light of the need for Japanese companies to globalize," he explains. 

Along with the universal communications evolution, he notes that advertising firms in Japan are including PR in pitches while PR agencies are now "more and more going after marketing dollars."

Hitoshi Shioya, who serves as Golin’s representative out of its Tokyo office and also as Weber Shandwick’s representative director and EVP in Japan, says that "the PR model has moved away from a focus on communicating via mass media" to better represent consumers’ preferences.

"This also includes a lot of personal and customized interactions on social and digital media," he adds.

Reaching a multicultural audience
While Shioya acknowledges that creative and strategic mindedness are valuable traits in the PR landscape, he also notes the importance of multiculturalism in Japan.

"Whether a team member is Japanese or not is less important than the person’s ability to understand and function within a range of cultures on behalf of our clients – both international and Japanese," Shioya continues.

Several years ago, anonymous sites such as 2channel were very popular for Japanese people who wanted to express frustrations about life in general.

"Because of the hierarchical and lockdown nature of Japanese society, they cannot do so openly," says Rowbury, who adds that anonymity meant forgoing the credibility social channels cultivated elsewhere.

That all changed when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in 2011. People could not get service on their phones, but Facebook’s messaging service worked, which led to a spike in Facebook activity, as well as Twitter.

"There was a greater need for Japanese people to feel connected with one another throughout that period," explains Rowbury. "And you can convey a lot more information in 140 Japanese characters than you can with 140 English characters." 

Since the disaster, he says there has been a "buildup of credibility" among digital and social media, and platforms have cemented their place as key players in campaigns. 

Rowbury cites Edelman’s April Fools’ Day effort for Adobe, which jokingly promoted Photoshop Real, a physical photo-editing suite. It ended up "outstripping results of other campaigns by Google, Red Bull, and Lotte," he notes.

"Five years ago this sort of integrated campaign would not have been possible," Rowbury continues.

Renewable energy – an afterthought as little as five years ago – is also on the rise in Japan. The nation was forced to shutter 48 nuclear plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, says Sumito Koike, director, external and corporate comms, GE Japan. The government is committed to growing renewable energy significantly by 2030.

"There are many players gathering in this area recently. It’s a hot market," he says, particularly solar energy.

GE’s efforts in Japan are solely b-to-b, Koike adds, as the company does not sell directly to consumers.

However, GE faces an uphill comms battle because it is matched against domestic companies including Toshiba, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi, whose "brand awareness is almost hitting [the] maximum," he says, compared to GE or other foreign competitors such as Siemens or Philips.

"To compete with strong domestic players, we need a strategic approach," Koike notes. "To leverage our low awareness, we need third-party communications, too."

When GE Japan reintroduced a unique wind turbine in 2014, third-party comms proved beneficial in efforts to reach a business audience. Buzz around the turbine has been "sustainable," he says, following a speech by Anne McEntee, president and CEO of renewables at GE Power & Water, during a Wind Expo event that was covered in a top-tier trade publication and broadcast on local TV.  

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