Crisis in Japan underscores the impact of mainstream media

At 2:46pm on Friday, March 11, I was in a meeting in the communications department on the 10th floor of Nissan's global headquarters in Yokohama.

At 2:46pm on Friday, March 11, I was in a meeting in the communications department on the 10th floor of Nissan's global headquarters in Yokohama. The building started to shake. And shake. And roll. And shake some more. When a temporary peace returned and the building stopped moving, the crisis began.

Like most communicators, I've experienced my fair share of crises during my 20-year career at Ford and Nissan. Fires and spills in manufacturing plants, employee issues, advertising that offended, recalls, and the constant ups and downs of the global auto industry. But when you become part of a crisis that is truly beyond your control, you enter into the most uncertain world of all.

As I write this, foreign governments are pulling their citizens out of Japan, the nuclear reactors at Fukushima continue to threaten the local population, and the unfolding human tragedy caused by the earthquake and tsunami is gripping the world for all the wrong reasons. In the midst of this, we are trying to make cars and communicate in the clearest, most transparent way possible.

We are issuing regular statements on the status of our people and facilities. We are putting our executives in front of the media and, most importantly, talking to our employees about the challenges that lie ahead. In my spare time, I am also trying to maintain contact through Facebook and other channels with friends and family.

Although social media has been an incredibly powerful and convenient way for me to involve people that are personally important to me, the communication reality of this crisis is beyond a tweet. I'll bet my promised airline seat on a flight out of Japan - which I will not be taking, by the way - that when you first heard of this crisis, you reached for the remote control and then to your keyboard.

I heard this week that the BBC and CNN had each sent over 50 people to Japan to cover this crisis. Every major media outlet is pouring people in. And until assignment editors in London, New York, and Atlanta decide the story has passed its peak, the "traditional" media remains my primary focus for telling our story.

Social media has liberated us all to be reporters and commentators with an unlimited global audience. But the simple lesson I have learned one week after the crisis began: don't ever forget the basics we all learned about working with professionals in the news.

Simon Sproule is corporate VP of global marcomms at Nissan Motor Company. He is based in Yokohama, Japan.

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