In PRWeek's first-ever visit to Japan, local comms leaders joined Steve Barrett for this Nissan-hosted roundtable to discuss the impact of the 2011 earthquake, the nation's unique press corps, and efforts to boost transparency.
Learning from disaster
Steve Barrett (PRWeek): What has been the role of the Prime Minister's communications office, especially since the earthquake on 3/11 last year? What lessons did you learn from that process?
Noriyuki Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): After 3/11, I was taking 60 interviews during the first two weeks, mostly from English-speaking TV or radio. After this crisis-management phase, we entered more medium- to long-term issues of how we tackle reputational damage, food safety, or tourists not coming. How we convey the government's messages overseas and regain trust.
The most important lessons were transparency and accountability, but it's not easy to put that into action. Corporations, or in this case one giant company called Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), were exposed to these crisis communications challenges along with the government.
We learned we should be better prepared as organizations or government, or as a society, because it's not only the government that can address these issues. We're still tackling the lingering aftermath, especially the nuclear power plant accident.
I tried to recruit people with different backgrounds, not only government officials, including a former Nissan global marketing manager. We need to strengthen our public/private partnership to be more effective in our global communication efforts.
Barrett (PRWeek): Simon, within 45 minutes of the earthquake you were in a room with your team trying to work out your response. How was that?
Simon Sproule (Nissan): The communications environment after the earthquake was extremely strange. Suddenly everybody realized Japan still existed as a country. The BBC and CNN had one or two people in their Tokyo bureaus. Within two days, each had 48.
Employee safety came first. What's the damage? Two manufacturing plants were majorly affected. Supply chain was badly disrupted. Getting production started again was the main priority for anyone who makes or distributes anything.
But this is where Japan is at its finest. Within minutes, we had the crisis center set up. As soon as the airports cleared, [CEO Carlos] Ghosn got on a plane and came back. Everyone gathered and we just got on with it.
In terms of media management, I used social media personally to tell people I was OK and that we were surviving, but we turned the mass media to our advantage. We were one of the most vocal Japanese companies because many of them got scared and went into the bunker. I was pushing our executives to do any media interview they could.
Barrett (PRWeek): What was the biggest challenge for Procter & Gamble, the biggest consumer goods firm in the world?
Yukiko Tsujimoto (Procter & Gamble): Our headquarters is located in Kobe. So we tried to understand what's going on in Tokyo and the Tohoku area [where the earthquake hit], but it is difficult to get firsthand information.
As a global company, we made sure we had common understanding with the corporation's headquarters in Cincinnati. It is so big and shared instantly that our global stakeholders need to see what's going on and respond to external questions.
The other concern was radiation. Items such as Pampers baby diapers and skincare products are produced in Japan and shipped globally, so we received many questions.
We tried to eliminate concern and respond carefully, but we didn't want to be too protective of consumers living outside Japan because it creates an imbalance. We wanted to be consistent about the balance of communications inside and outside Japan.
Barrett (PRWeek): Was there worry in the financial community that the markets would collapse?
Mariko Hayashibara (financial/banking PR specialist): After 3/11, the major concern [at the bank I was working for at the time] was whether the market would open on Monday. Our IT team was checking constantly on Saturday and Sunday whether there would be any trading issues. There were a lot of discussions going on between the industry, regulators, and the stock exchange about whether they should open on Monday.
Aston Bridgman (Deutsche Bank Group): It was pretty clear Friday the market was going to open. There was this determination that we had to get the country ready for business first thing on Monday. There could be no doubt and no crisis of confidence in Japan's reputation.
Hayashibara: But, obviously, some firms were against that idea, so there were a lot of discussions going on.
Barrett (PRWeek): Why were they against the idea?
Hayashibara: Some firms were facing resource issues because of the "flyjin."
Deborah Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): The term for foreigner in Japan is "gaijin," meaning "outside person." They got nicknamed "flyjins" around the earthquake because a lot of people – due to lack of or perceived lack of information because phones were down in Tokyo on Friday – went straight to the airport. Everybody, across the board, lost some resources.
Hayashibara: We received many media calls asking how many foreigners had left the firm. We probably have a higher percentage of non-Japanese employees so that was an issue, but it wasn't critical.
Barrett (PRWeek): How did the media come out of the episode in terms of the way it was covered? How was trust in media damaged?
Joel Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): Accountability and transparency is what we were after. You have those offices with a few correspondents working here permanently and good knowledge of what's going on. My main and immediate concern was for the nuclear factories, power plants. We knew at that time it would be trouble.
People came from abroad and certainly there were exaggerations, but it's a reflection of the lack of information from the government, administration, ministries, or Tepco.
When we got information, people had the impression the authorities were not in charge. People were also lying. Tepco was lying. This is very dangerous when you have a crisis of confidence in the media.
After we could go and see what had happened, we had a better situation. We had no regulatory institution in Japan at the time. It came after. Our pressure was very important. Media is not here to please. Media is here to hurt sometimes.
Barrett (PRWeek): What was your take on the way the media covered it and the way information was coming out?
Ross Rowbury (Edelman): There were relatively few media based here and suddenly we were the biggest story on the globe. Hundreds of media flew into Tokyo, which was relatively unscathed – there was no visual story.
It was difficult for them to get up to Tohoku, so they're stuck in their hotel rooms watching scenes of devastation on TV wondering what they should be reporting.
Media from my home country [Australia] asked how my employees reacted when the earthquake hit. But the Japanese are OK with these things. They just ducked under their desks. It was obviously not the answer they wanted, so there was a bit of sensationalization.
It highlighted that different governments communicate in different ways. In the US, a huge organization with lots of specialists comments on behalf of the government, regulators, or ministries.
In Japan, the cabinet secretary makes some top-line statement that is interpreted by a bevy of academics and press club briefings in a way not seen overseas.
Barrett (PRWeek): What would you do differently if you were to go back to that time?
Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): My office of global communications only started in July 2010 with four people. By 3/11, it was six or seven people. Your capability is limited.
Lots of information is sent out. Chief cabinet secretaries have at least twice-daily press conferences. And government officials started to have press conferences after a few days, sometimes lasting three hours.
The situation is unique in that even if we explain in Japanese, that might not be accurately conveyed to an international audience. So we need interpretation, some kind of mechanism to send out messages, but each country has its own unique perspective.
Some correspondents fled Tokyo, but more international journalists came in – experts in disaster situations and conflict zones. But the newcomers might not know the cultural context and linguistic barriers, so lots of stereotypes could be generated. To address this, I need, maybe, 100 times more resources.
Barrett (PRWeek): How many people do you have in your department now?
Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): Now it is 11 or 12.
Sproule (Nissan): The classic one was wearing masks to stop people getting your germs. Foreign media thought it was [to combat] antinuclear radiation, but it was everyone walking around Tokyo with masks that had a cold.
Rowbury (Edelman): Japan is the only advanced nation where government communication is done through the cabinet secretary. In most other advanced or large countries it is done by specialists.
It's an issue because the chief cabinet secretary has a day job. He is a very busy man. How much of a deep dive can he do on any of the issues with the added burden of doing two press conferences a day?
That's backed up by the press club system, which gives deeper [non-attributable] briefings [principally for Japanese journalists]. But it is an issue for Japan in terms of communications because every journalist is different – they require individual attention.
Specialists like those used by the US, Chinese, or even North Korean governments really do allow greater engagement with journalists. That would remove a lot of the problems regarding the perceived lack of transparency and detail.
Bridgman (Deutsche): In those initial moments, especially for an industry as fluid as finance, speed of communication is of the absolute essence.
It also helps when the operating model of the organization responsible is clear, in this case the government in Japan. In Western countries, there are different expectations of what the government has to deliver in terms of transparency, accountability, and relaying information. Japan was exposed to that wave of criticism and expectation very suddenly.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): A lot of crisis management plans addressed the physical. Who's here? Who's there? Where is our backup machinery? Do we have a new generator? Everybody was focusing on their memos and checklists, not how to leverage this by using the media to get the story out and explain the situation.
Hopefully everyone has learned that physical disaster and crisis plans are great, but we've got to think about the role communications plays. People were surprised and let down.
Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): There were no answers. We all had information from our own sources – police, army, services, and so on – people who are well aware of what happened in the nuclear factory.
Barrett (PRWeek): What lessons did you take out of it, especially the way Tepco handled it, as well as your own crisis management?
Mitsuko Takahashi (Boeing): Boeing's supply chain in Japan was devastated. We could not produce anything and the media knew it. Post 3/11, we did internal communication, which was of utmost importance. The president of Boeing Japan was abroad when the earthquake hit. He came back the next day and took the lead.
The best part of our internal communications was informing people what we knew. We were frustrated with government data and information, so we got [our own] from the US government and Boeing experts. Then we provided as much data as we had to try to be transparent.
My takeaway is the importance of internal communications, transparency, leadership, and the president's integrity. He didn't hide anything and that was very good.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): I hope Japanese companies in particular and some foreign companies learn that damage can be done early on by people wanting to be very transparent and giving out as much information as possible, but inadvertently damaging their brands.
People didn't think that if we highlight safety, we remind people they're not safe in the first place. There was a lack of thinking through how international audiences would interpret some messages. Communications in Japan is almost a question-and-answer repository rather than "What am I trying to achieve here?"
It would be nice if we as communications professionals move things to the next level, think more about what our strategy is and what we are trying to achieve.
Rowbury (Edelman): A lot of Japanese corporations took on-board that there were problems with the way corporations and government communicated. Edelman's Trust Barometer and Good Purpose Study in Japan show a significant change in mindset of the man on the street and stakeholders toward demands for transparency and consistent communication.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): Part of the challenge with the nuclear situation is people were bombarded with so much information, often without context, they got confused. It's got to be transparent in a way people can comprehend.
Rowbury (Edelman): We need to take complex things you understand intrinsically as an insider and produce content that makes them easier to understand for stakeholders, which is traditionally what journalists are supposed to do. A lot of corporations struggle with that, however. They have the information and the desire, but they don't know how to get it out there.
Bridgman (Deutsche): I see the challenge farther upstream for Japanese companies as regards criticism of Tepco, Olympus earlier this year [Olympus fired its CEO after he made an accounting scandal public], and the handling of the Thai floods last October, which is actually much more financially damaging for Japan than the earthquake. [Japan is Thailand's biggest foreign investor.]
A Western capitalist model looks at the company and says shareholders are the owners. But Japanese companies have more of a role within society, a joint-ownership proposition. That's where communicators have to take direction from management and clearly transmit it.
Sproule (Nissan): As a Japanese company, the next crisis – hollowing out – is more serious than the earthquake. Japanese corporations were very successful in building manufacturing networks around the world, automakers, electronics, and so on. But it is increasingly difficult at the current yen rate to maintain a high level of localization and manufacturing.
Some Japanese companies are going to stay in Japan no matter what, but I worry they're going down with the ship. We'll maintain a base here for R&D and manufacturing, but there's a limit to how much we can do due to our fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders.
Hayashibara: In Japan, basically the status of communications is very low. It is seen as a "girl's" job.
Takahashi (Boeing): Many Japanese companies think communications means answering questions or sharing information – there is no strategy. And the press club system means Japanese executives are not familiar with aggressive reporters. Press club members are tame and gentle. They don't ask nasty questions.
That was the environment before globalization, but all of a sudden executives start to face aggressive reporters, non-press club members, or foreign media. Then they get frightened.
Barrett (PRWeek): If Japan's communication is to develop, can the press club system survive?
Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): I have always worked with international media, so I understand their perspective much better. But you are talking about the established system, and government and press clubs coexist with each other. Unless there is a paradigm shift, it will be difficult to change.
When Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada became foreign minister, he opened up these press conferences. Anybody can come. Freelance journalists can ask questions. It was revolutionary, but still the club system remains.
The chief cabinet secretary in Japan is the top minister after the prime minister. He plays the role of spokesperson and also chief of staff for the prime minister. He does parliamentary relations. It's too much for one minister. At the same time, he is exposed to all the difficult policy and agency issues.
There should be an appropriate division of labor between political leadership and messages under those crisis situations.
On data transparency, we should have provided all the data and just made it public simultaneously. If we keep on doing it, the public would have much more confidence in us. We don't have to hide. This relates to the fundamental stance or philosophy of the government, which is embraced in the global discussion of open government. In Japan, we lag behind in facing this new approach in public policy.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): I'm all for transparency and making sure data on which we base opinion is available, but sometimes we get above our audiences' level of understanding. We need to break data down in a way that is easier to digest, rather than leaving people unfamiliar with the terminology to come to their own conclusions.
Bridgman (Deutsche): I go back to my earlier point. The problem is more upstream. What was the Japanese government communicating for? What was Olympus communicating for during its scandal?
In my experience, 3/11 was instant. As soon as that shaking started it was straight into communications, crisis management procedures. We were trying to ensure the continuity of our business because we need to make markets or there is no business tomorrow. Maybe it's easier for us in the sense that it's black and white.
The Japanese government has two audiences: those affected directly by the disaster and those watching it. Everybody's looking for leadership, confidence building, and understanding. But was there a process by which somebody was consciously saying what it is we're trying to achieve? That's a significant component missing in corporate communications in Japan. Look how Japanese brands have been pummeled over the years. Nissan is doing an exceptional job, but it's a rarity.
Tsujimoto (P&G): Our company is similar to Nissan. We see PR as an important part of brand building and brand protection, not only for the product but also corporate – P&G as a brand.
Takahashi (Boeing): At Boeing, I don't think the position of communications is low. We are close to executives and strategy-driven. My observation is about Japanese companies in general.
Rowbury (Edelman): I'm optimistic about the future. Change often comes in small doses. We've had a number of requests, particularly from Japanese companies, to educate their PR staff that their job is to feed back to management, to be the pulse on stakeholders' views.
They're realizing it's not a one-way street, not just handing out information. There is a much more engagement-oriented role where they are the centerpiece between the company and stakeholders or employees and management.
Japanese firms are being forced to globalize. No one knows their products or understands their brands, so they have to talk about themselves. We've been working with Japanese companies to help them get their master narrative together. As we go through the workshop, they really get into it and understand their role is not just shoving out information, but also helping form the message.
Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): The point is we have no concept of emergency in Japan. Is Japan ready to face such danger? This is a major obstacle. Who is going to tell you what you are expecting to hear cannot do it because he is a political risk? Tepco isn't going to say it because it has the industrial risk.
We had many demands to companies after 3/11 about the industrial crash and what was happening in those factories. Very little information came to us because there was no system at companies to provide information.
Time for transparency
Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, behind the US and China, but there has been a certain amount of complacency in the last 20 to 30 years as companies and organizations were able to grow strongly in their home market without having to worry too much about globalization.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the biggest issues for Japanese companies such as Sony and Honda were quality and financing – that is now stable, the business market is mature. But the yen is very strong and it is much harder to sell goods abroad, which has been dubbed part of a process of "hollowing out," the combined effect of the strong currency, increased competition from hungry Asian rivals such as Korea and China, the earthquake of 3/11 and the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and an aging workforce.
One problem is that PR is not yet recognized as a profession in Japan. It is not widely taught in universities, if at all, and only recently has there been a realization that it is an important discipline that needs investment if it is to be conducted effectively.
Where communicators stand
Barrett (PRWeek): Communications people increasingly report to the CEO. Are they at that top table in Japan? Are they able to influence real business issues?
Hayashibara: Marketing and corporate communication departments are a path to the higher executive level. Some senior people go through HR and communications. They usually do two or three years then move to the board. They are more generalists, not communications specialists. So they may have access to management, but they will move anyway after two or three years.
Bridgman (Deutsche): I spent over 10 years working at Japanese manufacturers. Even at the best companies, it would be rare for somebody running a communications department, let alone being a member of it, to be on the fast track. They would generally be sidelined. The real political base within a Japanese manufacturer would be where the key technologies are, where the key businesses reside, and where the income comes from.
Most of these people will be generalists. They'll be back office and on the move, so they have very little chance to influence.
The difference between working in communications at a Japanese manufacturer or Japanese firm versus global firms is we're much more based on an expertise and professional career track in this role. We generally have a much closer position to the management of the firm.
Rowbury (Edelman): In most large Japanese corporations, the head of PR reports directly to the CEO. The problem is it's not an advisory or consultancy role. It's a "What should I do now?" role.
While marketing has traditionally held a prominent place within Japanese corporations, PR has tended to be defined by media relations rather than the broader definition of communications. So agencies often face the problem of going and seeing a company and proposing maybe an employee engagement program. But the PR people say, "We don't do that here. We do media relations. We have 20 people doing media relations, so we don't need an outside consultant."
The issues are how the role evolves into one that is a consultative driver of change/engagement and how Japanese corporations begin to embrace a broader definition of the role and benefits of PR, communications, or public engagement.
Barrett (PRWeek): How can the government communications office encourage that? Or is it something business has to sort out for itself?
Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): Because of the evolution of the Japanese civil service system, we don't recruit communication specialists. There is much room for improvement on this.
Public policy has been oriented toward lawyers or economists, who play the larger roles, but there is a growing role for communications. There are still only a few Japanese colleges that have a major in communications, but we don't have a department of communications in many major universities.
I'm a big advocate for that direction. Of course, Japanese culture is "modesty is the best policy." You don't try to be conspicuous, extravagant. But there are some people who understand it.
Japan is rated among the highest in terms of global influence, but we are not capitalizing on what we have. We need to be better equipped and the government needs to transform itself, as do Japanese companies.
Global media is very American- or European-oriented. So you have to play that game. But there is an inherent difficulty for our society to be associated with it. This is the kind of challenge we have been going through and we're still coping with it.
Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): If you can't give the people what they expect, if you feed them this information, is it because you are incompetent or because you hide? If you are incompetent, it would be better to have communicators who can lie better.
I am very careful about communications because my job is news and news is information, not communication. If it is communications, it's providing further information on technical details. Of course it is up to me to do my homework, but the basic access to information part, the relationship of trust between the source and the journalist, is something that should not just exist in front of a glass of beer, but also from those in official positions.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): Joel has a rather misguided view of communications here. I think he's trying to say he thinks communicators are professional liars. That is not true.
Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): Not at all. Branding is not a lie. I never said that.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): We are here and communicators are here to give you exactly what you want. Our discussion today is more fundamental. Many things have happened over the last 12 to 18 months in Japan. We'd like to take those examples and lessons and ask, "Where do we go from here?" We want relationships with journalists where you can get access to the facts and interpret them.
We're also looking at two very different ways of doing journalism. Japanese reporters, because of the press club system and close relationships with companies, are given information they sort of repackage.
There's a difference between journalists and reporters. We need to work with Japanese companies to make them feel more comfortable dealing with a journalist who will have looked at something in the company's history or background they didn't want to talk about.
We're trying to make that dialogue happen. It's your decision what you focus on, but we want to give you the opportunity to at least make that decision.
Rowbury (Edelman): Having lived here for 34 years, I doubt whether, until the events of last year, the Japanese expected or wanted open transparency and to understand the truth.
Trust in media is highest in China, Singapore, and Indonesia – all high-growth countries where media has a degree of state influence. If you come through that high growth where incomes are rising every year, things are getting better, and life is more affluent, you don't want to know bad news.
Japan, for a long time, was that. We've come through 10 to 20 years of stagnant economy, generational change, five prime ministers in six years, big corporate scandals, yet we've never seen any demand from the public for change until 3/11 and Tepco.
After that, my Japanese friends would say, "How do you punish Tepco?" You can't turn off the electric power. You can't refuse to pay your bill. They'll cut you off.
Legendre-Koizumi (RTL France): The media is not saying communicators are dangerous people. We're talking about 3/11 and the political answer to a world crisis because it doesn't just affect Japan. Nobody doubts your influence and importance as communicators for business and industry. We all need you for that.
Bridgman (Deutsche): We've taken a very Western point of view about what communications is, what the expectations are, what you're supposed to achieve. But Japan is actually very good at communicating in its way because organizations tend to focus on much longer-term employment than most Western organizations.
Employees know their organizations well. They're familiar with the culture and are well-informed. They do a lot of study and they're conscientious about their companies. They can represent their companies well. Ultimately, as communicators we want to be the seed from which the whole organization flowers as a brand. We want to talk to all of our respective audiences professionally and well.
Our job is to help set that tone, direction, and strategy. The modern face of media is switching to social networks. This is a branch of media we all have to adapt to and deal with. The Japanese are probably the most adept at social networking, way better than us Westerners.
I'll go back to the criticism around Olympus, for example. What was Olympus' point of view in all that? Did it have to conform to what Western shareholders wanted? Most of its shareholders are Japanese institutions.
Rowbury (Edelman): If we were to ask the objective of government communications in 3/11, one would be to make sure there is social calm in the face of this crisis. What's the one thing the world says Japan did well? It's the fact there was no panic.
Yes, there was definite social cohesion. In that perspective, whatever the government communicated worked well. It certainly didn't lead to people marching in the streets, looting stores, and panicking.
Hayden (Kreab Gavin Anderson): We've criticized Japan for what it did during a disaster and praised US models of communications. But look at [Hurricane] Katrina through the same lens.
Rowbury (Edelman): In fact, the Japanese government and other people did a good job of communicating when measured against that benchmark. The bigger issue is that no man is an island. Japan is an island, but it is intertwined with the global economy and society, so there needs to be change.
Social media's role
Barrett (PRWeek): What is the role of social media and how is that going to change communications?
Tsujimoto (P&G): The reason increasing marketing is an important part of brand building is that, historically, Procter & Gamble is famous for mass marketing. TV advertising is still effective in Japan, but less effective in building brand equity and ongoing engagement with consumers.
Social media has been changing rapidly for three to five years. Facebook plays an important role for us. In terms of ongoing interactive engagement and loyalty from consumers, social media plays an important marketing role.
People expect to access the company and for us to have local sites. After the disaster, consumers wanted us to donate baby diapers. At that time, we didn't have Facebook and Twitter accounts at P&G Japan, so people sent messages to P&G UK and US.
They wrote in Japanese and I was immediately contacted by my colleagues saying, "Can you please handle it?"
Sproule (Nissan): As a large consumer brand, our engagement in social media is critical because the relationship people have with our products is very long.
The relationship with a car is three to five years. The interest in cars builds communities and social networks lend themselves wonderfully to that. For us it is a channel. It's not a full stop in the communication business, but it is very important.
Shikata (Prime Minister's Office): On the official Prime Minister's Office account, we don't feed articles in English written by other journalists. But I do. I could be criticized, but I do it anyway.
Between March 11 and 15 [of last year], the global center of social media became Japan. When you cannot communicate through telephone, Twitter especially proved effective. In light of what happened, there is no choice but to use it.
Rowbury (Edelman): After 3/11 and through the rise of Twitter, the Japanese have learned to become private in public and use their real names. We've seen an exponential increase in credibility behind social media as a platform.