Communicating calm after the storm

Japan is upping its communications game: a series of crises have led to better communication strategies and greater use of professionals.

Westerners give Japan a lot of heat for its perceived inability to change.

I would, however, argue that Japan has changed more over the past 20 years than, say, America has over the past 50. While change comes slowly here, it is constant and considerable over time.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

One notable ongoing transformation is in the world of corporate communications. The once maligned in-house corporate communications department – far from decision making and influence – is rising within the Japanese corporate structure as boardrooms learn from failed attempts to independently manage crises.

So what does Japanese communications look like in an old-school Japanese firm?

Orbiting the sun

For decades, one of the least influential and rarely tapped resources within the traditional Japanese company has been the communications team.

I like to imagine the typical Japanese corporate structure as something like the solar system. At the center is the all-powerful sun – huge, warm, life giving. This is the president’s office, or shacho shitsu, and boy it burns bright. Though we hear a lot about flat structures and consensus building in Japanese society, don’t take that too literally. The sun makes decisions, crafts messages, chooses directions, and commands everyone. (He – and yes it is almost always a he – goes around later building consensus that certifies his original decisions.)

Orbiting very close to the sun are frighteningly powerful departments like human resources, corporate planning, administration and sales. These people are in on everything and if you want to live you never cross them.

Where does corporate communications sit in this structure? Imagine Pluto. Far, in the cold outer reaches of the galaxy, is a small rock that does what it is told. It is staffed by company men and women largely on three- or four-year weigh station assignments until they move on to any number of other postings along their generalist career paths. For instance, you often find people in the “PR department” who have worked in unrelated positions in legal, the Osaka Branch, the manufacturing facility, or any other posting you can name. (Example: I once was asked to visit a newly appointed head of communications at a major Japanese bank to talk to him about the public relations industry. Fresh from his latest assignment running a small branch in Kagoshima, he began by asking me, “what is PR?”).

I have lived and worked in Japan for 30 years, and I still don’t understand why a non-professionalised public relations team would be Japan’s approach. Only conjecture, but I believe it has something to do with a culture that at its core does not value debate – and certainly shies from open argument. There is also a disappointing tendency in times of corporate crisis to shun outsiders, experts or consultants. Taken together, these attitudes historically have impacted the perceived usefulness of communications professionals in Japan.

It is during crises when we really see the flaws. Over the past several decades Japanese corporations have found themselves embroiled in a seemingly never-ending array of public relations disasters that have involved bribery, price fixing, underworld influence, safety scandals, food poisoning, mislabeling, financial manipulation and more.

In almost each case, the corporate response was largely driven by men at the center as well as by older “alumni” temporarily taken out of retirement to offer their wisdom and specialised knowledge of the company. The corporate communications department was a last-stage functionary handed centrally agreed messages and instructed on implementing strategy.

From silence to tears

Regarding strategy, Japanese crises are met with an almost unchanging “playbook” that to the outsider can look baffling, yet satisfies domestic audiences fairly well.

1. Silence. When crisis breaks, inquiries are most often met with silence and unanswered calls. (Ever notice how little Toshiro Mifune says in Kurosawa movies? He is a samurai – communicating strength through his silence.) Indeed to my knowledge nobody in a Japanese company ever got fired for saying “no comment”. If the brouhaha continues, as it will – particularly with Japan’s rapid embrace of surprisingly vicious social media – the company then moves to…

2. Deny everything. “It wasn’t us. We had nothing to do with this.” This may buy some time but inevitably management will likely need to cop to the charges and…

3. Apologise. Japanese are mea culpa masters and can defuse much with the right phrases and a grey commitment to not repeating past mistakes. If the flames of public scorn still are not dying down the company finally reaches for the big guns to…

4. Apologise a lot. Here we are treated to the Japanese press conference hosted by senior leadership. Often there will be tears, always there will be deep bows coupled with non-specific promises that a plan of action is already being implemented to address the missteps. Step 4 largely puts the crisis to rest – media, investors, regulators, and customers are sated and the offending, contrite corporation is given the opportunity to move on.

A caveat: sensibly none of the above applies to a Toyota or a Sony wrestling with a crisis in the west. The Four Step playbook is intended purely for domestic consumption.

Learning from disaster

The fantastic news is that cracks are appearing. Japanese corporations are moving communications advisors closer to the board room and the advice of outsiders is (slowly) being taken on board.
The 2011 nuclear crisis precipitated this change among some of Japan’s swifter organisations, which together with their multinational counterparts in Tokyo found themselves unprepared for the scale of the communications challenge.

You will remember that Japan’s nuclear accident was preceded by a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami which literally wiped out hundreds of kilometers of coastline and tens of thousands of people in minutes. It sounds harsh, but the seismic incidents presented no new communications challenges for Japanese corporate communicators who regularly deal with natural disasters. Updates were given on any supply chain disruption, employee safety was communicated, and financial impacts were estimated for reporters and investors.

Rather, it was the sheer terror brought on by the unseen and unconfirmed threat of radioactivity that presented challenges no one – in Japan or around the world – was trained to handle. As we resignedly said among ourselves at the time, “There is no manual for handling this”.

Widely varying threat assessments – from a domestic Japanese press that calmly proclaimed “all under control”, to a foreign press that increasingly screamed “get out now while you still can”, residents in Japan became confused. And all became scared when we watched the roof blow off the smoldering Fukushima power plant in real time, followed by helicopters furiously dumping sea water for several days on the reactor rubble.

For corporations the gravest challenge was trying to maintain hold on a workforce that at first slowly, and later with some speed, began to trickle out of Tokyo to perceived safety in other parts of Japan or abroad.

Corporate communicators largely rose to the challenge, and in so doing bettered their place in the company hierarchy as counselors to senior managers desperately seeking ways to reassure employees and staunch absenteeism.

A drop in the ocean?

The better crisis communicators counseled several things to Japanese leaders. First, acknowledge staff fears and tell them they have every right to decide for themselves whether to stay or go – the safety and the peace of mind of families is most important. I watched one president say to the full workforce, “If you choose to leave, I respect your decision and your job will be here when you get back. I only ask that you make your decision based on fact rather than rumour”. You could almost hear the sighs of relief in the room when employees realised their president was human and understanding of their concerns. (By the way, not one employee left his or her post following that day.)

Second, internal communications began to be put into second and third languages, reflecting the reality of workforce diversity and the schism in coverage that was appearing between Japanese and English media reports. All messages and materials that were provided in one language were equally provided in other languages.

Third, and maybe the most important lesson learned, the better companies began to over-communicate – putting out daily factual reports as even still-unconfirmed information became available. We realised that in the early days of the crisis, everyone had been massively undercommunicating – waiting for confirmed facts before saying anything to our staff. Was there a meltdown or not, how much radiation had reached Tokyo exactly, what precisely did the US government mean when it said it had planes waiting at Haneda Airport for American citizens? Waiting precious days to minutely nail down every fact, companies were initially creating a communications vacuum that was scaring the bejesus out of everyone. Staff began to suspect that management knew a lot more than it was saying.

Corporate communications teams and crisis advisors played a lead role in each of these strategic changes, bringing common sense thinking to a very confused situation.

We have little data or research on the extent of Japanese adoption of better communications methods and strategies. The industry is too new in comparison to what we see in other global markets. Yet anecdotal evidence is there and we know that the leading automotive, technology, game, energy, online retail and heavy industry players are adding corporate communications heads to executive committees and establishing dedicated crisis teams both in Japan and abroad.

These blue chips are nevertheless a drop in the ocean and many more Japanese corporations will need to make similar moves in the years ahead. As we have seen with so much of Japan’s slow but steady evolution in strategy and results, the nation’s companies in the end have little choice.

Executive summary

• Traditionally, the corporate communications department within a Japanese organisation was relegated to the sidelines, far from the center of action.

• The four stages of Japanese approach to crisis communications were silence, denial, apologise, apologise a lot.

• The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 2011 marked the beginning of a change in approach in the way Japanese organisations communicate.

• National media’s message to stay calm contrasted with international media’s more alarmist tone.

• Now, Japanese corporate communications are more humanized, with corporate communications and management driving the message.

Jason Kendy

Jason Kendy leads UBS’s internal and external corporate communications and branding operations in Japan as well as Korea. Prior to joining UBS in 2011, he worked for 10 years at Merrill Lynch as its head of Japanese communications, branding and reputation management. During his more than 25 years in Japan, he has advised a range of multinationals including Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, United Airlines, MUFG, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Matsushita Electric and Japan Tobacco. Earlier in his career, Jason also spent three years advising US-based corporations in New York.