Learning lessons from Fukushima

Shin Tanaka believes that Japan’s political and communications processes must be rethought following the dramatic events which occurred following the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear scare

1. What lessons should the Japanese government learn from the comments around it response to the earthquake and the resulting tsunami and nuclear scare?

There are countless lessons to be learned from the crises. During a time of crisis, the top figures taking charge must make their leadership visible. Regarding the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 3.11 and the following crisis of the nuclear power plant, Prime Minister Kan and the people in charge at TEPCO clearly lacked this visibility. The message that they were taking charge of the issue was not clear and shouldhave been reviewed.

Furthermore, there was a clear problem with the message delivered by the government and TEPCO. First of all, consistency was lacking in their messages. This is due to the fact that there was no clear grand-design to their communications. Also, blind transparency may lead to regrettable results. Every message sent out must be accompanied with an explanation of what it actually means to the listener and why they are being told about it.

Another noteworthy point was the lack of communications towards foreign media and other overseas actors. Especially in the early stages of the crises, communications in English were poor, if not non-existent. It is highly important to send out the message that they are requesting the knowledge and support from external actors in times of crises. 2. How has disaster response communications changed as a result of the rise of social media and the onset of a 24 hour global mass news media?

The rise of social media and 24 hour news networks have changed many aspects of communication. Raw information, pictures and footage of the disaster quickly flowed across the globe.

There are some positive aspects to this fact as well as negative ones. Let me mention some negative observations first. Since so many people with varying scopes of knowledge emitted information simultaneously through social media, there weren’t appropriate messages accompanying the statements made.

Furthermore, authenticity of the information wasn’t easy to confirm. Some foreign media outlets used information obtained from social media such as Twitter as sources for their news. A famous example is one major news network reporting the location of Shibuya Eggman, a popular club in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, as a site of a nuclear facility. Such false, unconfirmed information induces negative reputations to sprout; this then is spread through social media, and brings about more negative rumours. Once this happens, it is very difficult to stop; hence the prevention of this through proper communication of messages is of utmost importance.

At the same time, there are also positive aspects to the rise of social media. Important information reaches citizens with speed, possibly helping evacuation and confirming safety of friends and family. To share Fleishman Hillard Japan’s experience, we were able to confirm the safety and whereabouts of our employees through social media. As telephone lines were overloaded by people making calls right after the earthquake, social media acted as a vital tool for communication. Since then, we have made it mandatory for all employees to have a Twitter account.

2. What are the best strategies for communicating complex issues and messages such as those surrounding nuclear energy? How do you get the message over without baffling people with science?

Transparency in the communication of information at times of crises is crucial. Although, it is not sufficient to provide information alone; this would leave the messaging open-ended toward various interpretations. It is important to explain what these facts mean and what reactions should be made from the listeners’ perspective.

The initial press conferences held by the government regarding the nuclear crisis contained immense amounts of technical information, mostly facts that made no sense to the public. This sort of communication caused a sense of unease among the public.

Also, it is necessary to have a consistent message; if different branches of government and companies are saying different things about the same issue, who would you believe? Trust cannot be built on such shaky foundations.

3. What more can governments, and private sector players, do to communicate effectively – and accurately – during crises such as those seen in Japan?

In addition to the points mentioned earlier regarding transparency and consistency in the delivery of messages after a crisis occurs, there is another factor that governments and private companies should consider. A strong relationship of trust built with stakeholders before any crisis occurs. At times of crisis, it is likely that messages coming from third-parties would be trusted more than if they come from the directly from the source.

An example of this was the message sent out from the US government regarding the Fukushima nuclear power plant for all those within 80 kilometers to stay indoors. This message came out at a time when people were in doubt of the Japanese government sources and trying to leave the country with fears of radiation. Japan had been able to develop a strong relation with the US, helping to calm panic among the public.

4. How do those involved in communicating in complex, fast-moving scenarios develop plans which allow them to control the message, not be controlled by the issue or crisis?

Communication is a power that moves people and opinions with messages. These messages aren’t necessarily things that you intended to send; messages are what are felt by the listener. The world of communication is full of misinterpretations and mistakes; in fact that is true in most cases.

There are five steps that those involved in communications should keep in mind when handling a crisis:

  • Have a sense of purpose; establish what you want to achieve.
  • Know your target; design the communication accordingly.
  • Develop your message.
  • Carefully plan your timing.
  • Consider how you are going to get your message across.

All crisis communications should be designed with these points in mind. If these are carefully planned you will be able to control the message without being controlled by it. Transparency, consistency of the message and commitment toward the issue are of utmost importance.

5. When the media gets into a crisis story it sometimes fails to take stock of the real situation: how important is it to challenge the media when it appears to be over-stating risk or challenging official data and statements?

It is important for governments and companies to correct over-stated or false reports. There have been many cases of such reports and articles in the mass media, especially in foreign media, in the initial stages following March 11th. The Japanese government responded by ordering embassies across the globe to monitor local media portrayal of the crisis in Japan and to file a complaint where necessary.

Although it is necessary to correct such false reports, it is more important to prevent this from happening. As stated earlier in this interview, properly designed communications strategies would be able to provide a safeguard against such problems from occurring.

Contingency-plans should be made before a crisis happens. It is crucial to simulate and create a protocol for how to handle these situations before being thrown into a crisis situation.

6. What is the most important thing a PR and communications professional should remember when they are engaged in crisis communications or issues management?

The most important thing that a PR/communications professional should remember is to always maintain transparency, message consistency and commitment to the issue. These points will support the preservation of integrity of the client.

Transparency is critical for those dealing with crisis communications. Transparency is not the act of just dumping raw data upon the public; the information must reach the appropriate target with a message. PR and communications professionals must make sure that this transparency is assured at all times.

The next is message consistency. Consistency of the message is crucial to the communication strategy. Without the grand-design, any communications may become inconsistent.

Finally, it is important to show the commitment of the firm to the incident or issue. Commitment should be considered at two levels; commitment toward the actual affected people and commitment with third-parties that are required for the effort to minimise damage.

This mainly includes the key stakeholders of the company. Communications should be designed with a grand-design in mind at all times. Consider why and to whom you are announcing something. Next, create your message and consider when and how you are going to deliver this.

7. Japan in some senses now appears a stronger and more resilient country following the events of the last three months. How should the country respond to this opportunity to innovate and how should this be communicated both domestically and internationally?

Although Japan is recovering from the unprecedented chain of disasters that struck Japan on 3.11, there is growing criticism that a unified message or “Japan Voice” is nonexistent. I believe that this is the key in order to eradicate the negative reputation that is being associated with Japan.

While Japan is receiving the attention from all across the world, we must clearly express the voice of the country both domestically and internationally. The best means to do away with this negative reputation is to have people visit Japan. Prime Minister Gillard of Australia was the first head of state to visit the affected areas and contributed to the alleviation of the negative imagery.

Fukushima is not just a name of an area anymore. The name entails the issues that Japan is currently trying to tackle (nuclear safety, green energy development, the aging society and creation of regional medical systems and communities). This is not only true in Japan; rather, Fukushima is recognized by the world.

By taking advantage of this atmosphere, we can bring leaders of nations, businesses, NGOs and other sectors to a Fukushima Conference. Japan can utilize this as a platform of message-sending to all affected areas, the rest of Japan and the world.

This will change the name Fukushima in to a positive, symbolic statement to the world that Japan is back up and running. It will not be an initiative led by the government; it will be led by private-sector actors. Whether it becomes a restoration summit, a nuclear summit or clean energy summit, we will have plenty of justifications to hold such a meeting in Fukushima.

Shin Tanaka is president of Fleishman-Hillard in Japan

The Thought Leaders series is produced in association with Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world’s leading communications consultancies

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