Shades of Harold Denton at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979. The Japanese government has taken over the spokesperson's role from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex. "Tokyo’s intervention in Tepco’s public-relations arm came after several briefings that sowed confusion, with Tepco issuing statements on radiation levels that it later rescinded or revised, or that appeared to catch Tokyo by surprise at briefings often held at around the same time of day,” reports The Wall Street Journal.TEPCO
Nuclear power gives rise to virtually unique fears and anxieties. When, in the early days of the TMI-2 accident, Metropolitan Edison Co., the plant's operator at the time, found that it wasn't up to the requirements of credible crisis communication, Harold Denton, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and President Jimmy Carter's personal representative at the scene, stepped in and became the TMI spokesperson. He did an exemplary job of explaining what was, or wasn't, happening. It took longer at the Fukushima plant for the utility to relinquish its spokesmanly role, but it apparently couldn't hold on to it.
Something there seems to be that keeps nuclear power companies from making good on the importance of timely, accurate communication when things go badly awry at a plant and radiation releases become a concern. Since TMI-2, there have been reforms in communication systems at U.S. plants focused around joint information centers and required biennial emergency drills. But whether the utilities' information stamina would be up to the strains of an extended emergency remains to be seen - and we can only hope it won't have to be tested.
The Japanese are pretty savvy nuclear plant operators. What it is about communication that hangs them up would make a great study - it's probably already underway by a team of academics. There are stresses in hazards like radiation releases that make crisis communication a stringent discipline, one that needs to be especially selfless and public-focused for the organization involved. It may be hard to put perceived corporate interests aside during an emergency, but that's a baseline requirement of effective crisis communication, in whatever setting a crisis strikes. Remember the Gulf BP spill of a year ago?
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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