The earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on Friday, March 11, was the worst natural disaster this country has ever experienced. Although the quake itself was strong enough to shake Tokyo down to its foundations, it was not the quake but the tsunami which followed that wreaked real havoc, destroying entire towns and cities, claiming thousands of lives, and setting off a nuclear crisis which has yet to be contained.
Considering the scale of the disaster, the Japanese government could not help but be caught off guard. However, I think it’s fair to say that officials handled the situation well under very difficult circumstances and learned quickly after a few initial missteps.
From a communications perspective, the government faced numerous challenges as the disaster unfolded. First and foremost, the current government has been in place for less than a year, and had not yet been tested by a crisis of this scale. Secondly, the situation developed so rapidly, with the focus shifting from the earthquake and tsunami to the nuclear crisis, that it was all officials could do to announce each new development; there was no opportunity for reflection or analysis.
The government also faced a major organizational challenge in the lack of a central body which oversees official communications. Although an international division within the Cabinet Public Relations Office was established last year, helping the current government be better prepared to disseminate news than the previous government might have been, the crisis highlighted the need for a central organization that can perform the critical communications functions of intelligence gathering, analysis, and message delivery, and which coordinates the communications of various ministries and other government bodies. The crisis generated countless data—we are now more familiar with magnitudes and millisieverts than we ever hoped to be—but the government’s chief failing was its inability or unwillingness to explain what any of it meant.
In this sense, the Japanese government has much to learn from its foreign counterparts. The US government’s recommendation for a 50-mile evacuation zone around the nuclear facilities and clear explanation of threats faced by people within and without that zone went a long way to easing public fears about radiation. Similarly, when the British Embassy arranged a public roundtable with leading nuclear experts, and those experts did not shy away from discussing worst-case scenarios, they addressed the public’s need for meaning in a way that the Japanese government had not done before. I hope the Japanese government will take the actions of other governments to heart. It is not enough to communicate accurately; we must also communicate effectively, and provide context and analysis which allow the audience to understand what the information they’re being presented with actually means.
I believe the crisis will have a profound effect on the communications landscape in Japan going forward. One positive that has emerged is a widespread recognition across both the public and private sectors of the importance and value of communications.
This crisis will give Japan the opportunity to innovate, much as it did in the aftermath of World War II, and to promote its leadership in areas such as environmental and safety-related technology. For communications firms with a global reach, there is a significant opportunity to help Japanese organizations, be they public or private, develop and share their messages with the world.
Shin Tanaka is president of Fleishman-Hillard Japan