Monday, April 11, 2011

The Japanese disaster and crisis communications

A month after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, 30 days marked by the worst nuclear disaster since Tchernobyl, there's been lots of comments recently on how different Japanese officials handled crisis communications.

I'll review some of those comments here and then add, modestly, a few of my own.

Bill Salvin had this post in late March, a mere two weeks after the disaster struck. One of his key observations centers on the mistrust of TEPCO, the large utility company that owns the stricken nuclear generating station in Fukushima. Lack of clarity, obfuscation, misleading comments are clearly not words normally associated with good crisis communications practices. Yet they sum up this post and many reports from journalists from around the world. Here's an excerpt: 

"The company that owns the nuclear power plants, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been accused of withholding information and downplaying the severity of crisis. It got so bad, a senior government official asked a TEPCO leader, "What in the world is going on?"

A story published in the Japan Times Online this weekend takes another approach. It looks at the different perception of the communications response between internal Japanese and international audiences. The article cites a poll done by the American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo and it's pretty revealing of how foreigners viewed the response:

"When asked, "What was the biggest challenge you confronted during the crisis?" time and time again, the same messages came back: "misinformed and sensationalized rumors"; "lack of consistent and accurate information about nuclear risk and rolling blackouts"; and "obtaining accurate, complete and timely information to make prudent business decisions" were typical of the responses.
This illustrates that the government's crisis communication response was inadequate, especially from the perspective of the international community."

Another good analysis comes from reputed crisis communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman, author of the Risk = Hazard + Outrage technique. Sandman pays a lot of attention to what wasn't said by Japanese authorities and how that contributed to creating confusion and resentment. His approach focuses on communicating risks that cause alarm and addressing the topics head on. That's something that didn't happen as he writes here:

"But they failed to predict that there would probably be increasing radiation levels in local milk, vegetables, and seawater; that Tokyo’s drinking water would probably see a radiation spike as well; that plutonium would probably be found in the soil near the damaged plants; that the evidence of core melt would probably keep getting stronger; that all that water they were using to cool the plants would probably become radioactive, probably make repair work more difficult and more dangerous, and probably begin to leak; etc. After each of these events occurred, the government told us they were predictable and not all that alarming. But it failed to predict them.
My guess is that officials did in fact predict most of these events – privately. But they failed to predict them publicly."

That failure, according to Sandman, made things much worse in terms of public perception and heightened fears.

Another look at the handling of the Japanese nuclear crisis takes aim at how information was delivered and proves very positive for the main spokesperson for the Japanese government.
The post from Jonathan Bernstein's blog (citing a Japanese colleague) goes over the key aspects of delivering crisis communications.

So, what are my own thoughts? Well, I somewhat agree (I don't speak Japanese so I can't judge, but the key points mentioned in Jonathan Bernstein's post certainly ring true) that the delivery was adequate. But what was sorely lacking was coordination, unity of messaging and a clear sense of strategy. 

First, from the onset, there was always an impression (in my mind certainly), that TEPCO and the Japanese authorities were not singing from the same song sheet. There always seemed to be some daylight between their respective positions and statements. The inaccuracies of certain radiation readings didn't help either.

Second. we never really knew until a few weeks in, who was speaking on behalf of a unified response. Were the TEPCO people in charge? Or was the government's Cabinet Secretary? Or the Japanese Prime Minister? There must be some coordination and unity of messaging established right from the start of any major incident from all the key stakeholders. With social media, rumours and contradictory information spread very quickly and it takes a lot of effort to correct that misinformation later on.

Finally, we never got the sense that there was a clearly defined strategy associated with the response. The nuclear incident overshadowed everything and other elements of the response (particularly dealing with the survivors of the earthquake/tsunami) were left exposed and subject to criticism from the media. The confusion regarding crisis communications and risk communications practices in relation to Fukushima helped to muddle the water for the overall response and how it was perceived by audiences, internal and external.

To summarize: a key lesson learned should be the need for immediate coordination of emergency information by all major stakeholders. There must be a sentiment that there is a singular purpose shared by all key parties involved: to inform audiences honestly, promptly, openly and efficiently, using social media and other tools.

That sentiment never materialized in the first weeks of this ongoing disaster.
What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Patrice, you're right that a clear lack of strategy is a key problem here. While the government is now posting radiation readings around the country, many people posted their own before the government did. There are even websites that aggregate individual's data and put it into graphs. People are starting to communicate critical information themselves if the "credible" source fails to deliver. There is much to be learned here. And thank you for mentioning my post and thank you for reading. All the best, Bill