2011 PR in Japan: A Matter of Trust
02.02.2012 - Posted By: Gwen Knapp - Director of Public Relations
2011 held countless displays of public relations that enhanced and hurt the reputations of people and organizations everywhere. In fact, there are plenty that could comprise a good year-in-review list. However, when I look back at 2011 through the PR missteps lens, I assess the damage not based on the nature of events themselves, but on how those events made me feel. The question I ask myself is “which events stirred the worst feelings within me?”
By far, the most disturbing 2011 event for me was the Japan earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster that spurred massive leaks of radiation. While the crisis led to yet another change in Japan’s leadership (the governing Democratic Party elected Yoshihiko Noda as the new prime minister in August - the sixth person to hold the post in five years), that change led to no better handling of the situation as the tragic events unfolded.
What I remember most is the anger that bubbled up as Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government created as much mystery as possible around the amount of radiation being let off by the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. I’m still haunted by the matter-of-fact statements made by plant workers, bidding goodbye to their families for at least “many months,” to contain the toxicity emanating from the bedeviled reactors. To this day, I can’t recall any reports of what ever became of those unfortunate souls. Did any of them make it back out of the reactor facilities?
And then, there’s the kicker. Japan’s emperor Akihito comes out of the woodwork to comfort a lost and terrified nation. The emperor’s speech was his first-ever televised address and it was the first time any Japanese emperor has given a speech directly to the people on television during a national crisis. I wonder if the emperor realized what an irreversible PR nightmare was in progress. Did he sense that the trust and confidence of an entire people in its government was at stake? Was he somehow trying to bridge the gap between the Japanese government’s need to save face with the world by minimizing the appearance of chaos and the need to be honest and transparent with the Japanese people when they needed it most?
For many Japanese, the crisis brought with it a wave of doubt as to whether or not their government, an institution that has enjoyed a trust not seen in the U.S. for decades, was telling the truth about the realities of the disaster and the harm it was doing to people. When the government says that, on one hand, everything is just fine at the plant, but on the other hand, seal yourselves inside your homes and try not to breathe the air from outside, even the most loyal Japanese nationals began to lose trust.
This was a chilling reminder to me that as a PR practitioner, trustworthiness and transparency are my most valuable assets. Failing to communicate or waiting too long to communicate during a crisis can strip people of the calm they desperately need during that time. And it’s one of the things people tend to remember when the crisis is over or subsides. If Japanese citizens continue to lose trust in the government’s truthfulness or competence, then Tokyo will face another crisis, this one of its own making. Once that trust is gone, saving face will be out of the question.