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April 22, 2011
Crisis Communication: Heed What We're Hearing from Japan
 
It's easy to zing Japan and Tokoyo Electric Power for flaws in their communication of the earthquake-induced Fukishima nuclear plant disaster. Chalk it up, basically, to cultural differences, writes Doug Tsuruoka, of Investor's Business Daily. And it's true that the Japanese weren't well-served by "cultural preferences for understatement and speaking indirectly." Yet just those sorts of encumbrances might surface at any number of U.S. organizations should an embarrassing crisis strike any of them. That's why it's so important to practice crisis communication as a preparedness discipline before a crisis strikes – even though, let's hope, one might never occur.  

Tsuruoka's piece is the most thorough we've seen so far on the communications aspects of the Fukushima crisis. Mid-April polls in three big Japanese newspapers indicate that over two-thirds of the Japanese themselves "are dissatisfied with the government's handling of the crisis." So even among stoical people, when a crisis occurs there's an expectation of prompt, trustworthy information.

"'I no longer believe half of what the government's saying about the reactors,' says a Tokyo-area dermatologist who asked not to be identified."

Once an impression of inadequate or untrustworthy information is set loose, it lingers. Crisis communication needs to be on the mark - open and responsive to public concerns - from the start. It also has a teaching function, to help the media and the public generally understand how a facility works normally, and how its operations are being upset by adversity. A media center well-equipped with diagrams and backgrounders needs to be on hand from the start. It doesn't have to be a showplace, just well-stocked with background information and diagrams.

No way can "saving face" be the primary concern when a crisis strikes. That lesson is as applicable in the U.S. as in Japan - and it likely still needs awareness and drilling on this side of the Pacific. Pay heed to reports like Tsuruoka's.

See, also, all the ways social media is being used in the Japanese crisis.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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