Governments and companies thoughtfully put plans in place for crises like the one unfolding in Japan, but as we can see, they often unravel.
First, we’ll list some of the communications blunders we saw last week. Then we’ll get an exclusive take from a seasoned crisis communications expert.
- Japanese officials continued to deny water from the cooling pools was gone (and radiation levels were not harmful) even as helicopters scrambled to drop water on the fuel rods and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees carried out what were arguably suicide missions. It was left to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) head Gregory Jacko to explain that radiation levels were "extremely high" and conditions are "life threatening."
- Emperor Akhito delivered a rare address to the nation, but it was a full five days after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck.
- TEPCO failed to keep Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the loop over the company’s mishandling of the Fukushima plant explosions and subsequent radioactive leaks. That’s probably why he slammed the company mercilessly and publicly.
- While the Japanese balanced “on a knife edge waiting to see if the nuclear power plant and radiation leaks can be brought under control,” observed Reuters, TEPCO chief executive Masataka Shimizu “all but vanished from the public eye.”
- When it comes to the food supply, no one’s steering the ship. The world is hearing about elevated radioactivity in milk and spinach but is confused by what The Wall Street Journal describes as “the absence of a central authority that can oversee the wide-reaching investigation and decide what steps should be taken.”
This framework of distrust is part of a larger pattern in Japan’s history, says crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia of Logos Consulting Group. "In previous nuclear accidents, they've lied or covered it up, which changes the dynamic,” he told Checkmate in a phone interview. “People think, ‘they’re lying to me.’ It’s a case where they need an independent level of validation for virtually everything that is said."
Garcia reminds us of two fatal flaws in times of crisis.
"The single biggest predictor of distrust and reputational harm is the perception that people in charge don't care,” he said. “The second is when they are perceived as not addressing legitimate expectations and pretending something is better than it is."
Complicating matters is the misalignment between governments and the companies that operate the plants, a typical dynamic in Japan. Different entities have different kinds of concerns, for example, litigation vs. political concerns: “It’s a misalignment which infuriates people who are supposed to be accountable to us,” Garcia said.
A common mistake during a crisis is trying too hard to make people feel better. “I believe Michael Brown lied at that press conference during Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to prevent panic, but the consequences were far worse,” said Garcia. “This approach gets even more complicated in a Japanese culture where saving face is a strong motivator.”
What should government and corporations do during monumental crises like Japan involving tens of thousands of lives (missing and dead), trillions in property losses and growing health concerns?
Trust, transparency and consistency are the keys, Garcia said.
“Tell us what you know, tell us what you don’t know, tell us what we’re supposed to do and tell us what you’re going to do,” he advised. “Then do what you promised. Then continuously repeat this communication cycle."