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March 21, 2011
Responding to Crisis Challenges – of All Sizes
 
Via the Japanese nuclear power plant emergency, we're being exposed to the stresses that crisis and risk communication can bring. Nuclear power and the manner in which its problems are communicated are, once again, in the dock, this time at Fukushima, Japan. Despite the enormous challenges in seeking to cool the damaged reactors, things could be going better in communication terms. Unreliable information from the plant and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been a refrain on CNN, for instance. 

"Data about the accident by Tokyo Electric Power Co. have been slow in coming and incomplete," Bloomberg adds, "prompting the Japanese government to set up a task force to share information." The Daily Kos joins in, leading a lengthy post on the subject with a skeletal Margulies editorial cartoon questioning the Japanese government's "transparency."

But just as the Fukushima plant wasn't designed for the severity of either the earthquake or tsunami that struck it on March 11, the best of emergency communication plans would be strained by issues at six reactors on a single site and a regional evacuation.

There's a fair amount of back-and-forth on nuclear power communication in The Daily Kos post. It quotes risk communication experts Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard as saying:  "The main communication problem results from the public's inability to know how much of the situation is under how much control, and what might happen if things get worse. Japanese officials have not helped us to understand that. Worse, they have not communicated in ways that encourage us both to trust that they are telling us everything they know and everything they're worried about, and to trust that they know what they are doing."

In truth, the Japanese seem to lack a joint information center in which all concerned with responding to the situation at Fukushima are represented and speaking clearly, authoritatively and candidly. That's a horrendous challenge in a six-reactor emergency, but bringing the parties together somewhere, somehow, to explain how it's going in a believable manner is at the core of adequate crisis response. There will be many lessons to learn from Fukushima, and this is surely one of them.

However, those of you who have only one enterprise to be concerned about should be paying attention, too. Effective crisis communication is a demanding challenge, the discipline of which is often neglected until it's needed – and then it's too late to be acceptably effective. How many emergency response drills have you held lately?  And how is your emergency communication flow preplanned for effectiveness? These are, or should be, big questions for lots of organizations, of all sizes. 

For starters, assign someone to monitor all he or she can of the crisis information scene at Fukushima and in Japan generally, get a sense of what the issues are, and brief you all on them. 

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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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