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."
Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.
An important component of the project is that it uses BP’s corporate logo as a marker, to orient the computer-generated 3D graphics. Basically turning their own logo against them. This repurposing of corporate icons will offer future artists and activists a powerful means of expression which will be easily accessible to the masses and at the same time will be safe and nondestructive.
The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I've encountered in a while. Leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.
Read more from our CleanSpeak blog here.
Now the auto company that could once do no wrong has shut down production lines and instructed dealers not to sell some of its most popular models. The New York Times reported that Toyota knew about the acceleration problems two years before it issued the recall. Rep. Henry Waxman, one of Congress’ most persistent consumer watchdogs, announced he will hold hearings to investigate the sudden acceleration problem next month.
Meanwhile, organizations like Red Cross leveraged their presence on Facebook, Twitter, and their own blog to communicate. Their 90999 mobile “insta campaign” is urging cell phone users to text the message “Haiti” to that number to make an instant $10 donation. Twitter users retweeted #HelpHaiti.
Many other organizations got involved and sent out their own fund raising tweets. Daily Finance reported that $5 million has been raised so far via text messages.
Citizen journalists are re-shaping the news business. Social media is no longer an adolescent finding its way; it’s become deeply embedded, viable and in instances like Haiti, a fresh, objective, needed voice shaping the story. It’s a reinvention of media – an improvement of media - that’s deeper, wider, more personal and much more real time.
I agree with social media guru Chris Brogan. In his new book, Trust Agents, he said, “Those who are active on the Web now realize that they need to embrace this new transparency, that all things will now eventually be known. Companies can no longer hide behind a veneer of a shiny branding campaign, because customers are one Google search away from the truth. Further, they join activist groups to stay informed about new practices, so they are often one step ahead of the people trying to profit from them. Companies must acknowledge that they are as naked on the Web as individuals are."
Let’s transparently toast to a more transparent 2010.
On the heels of a still-lasting nasty taste in the public’s mouth, it seems these two firms may have been better served – reputationally and ethically – by being bigger picture ponderers, transparent and giving it back.
These vaccine distribution blunders may also create a negative ripple effect for the Obama administration. Arguably, a large segment of the American public may instinctively leap to a “who’s ultimately in charge here?” connection.
Morgan Stanley presumably learned a lesson from its financial brethren and did the right thing when it turned over its entire supply of 1,000 doses to local hospitals. Good for them, but especially for all the people who need it most.