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  Karen Attyah Japanese Lessons: In Crisis, Take the Offensive
by Karen Attyah
July 8, 2011

Organizations will always attempt to portray themselves in the best light to keep their stakeholders happy. This is no less true in Japan, where it is commonly accepted that saving face and maintaining harmony are important, critical norms. But what happens when these values start to interfere with your brand image?


Recently we’ve seen Japan’s organizations and government grapple with two highly public business challenges and one tragic disaster. All incidents were unrelated, but the way senior executives or officials dealt with these incidents had a common overtone: conservative – if not defensive - communications rather than open admission of the challenge at hand. In chronological order, these incidents have given rise to global headlines:

The Toyota Recall

Whether or not it was justified, global communications pundits believe that Toyota was too slow—and too tentative—in recalling Toyota models with braking failures. Criticism isn’t about how Toyota finally rolled out its recall program. In fact, the program itself—once underway—was quite well executed with clear direction for Toyota owners with affected models. The stumbling point for Toyota was that the company was perceived as side stepping a critical issue prior to the recall that put its owners at risk.

The story runs as follows: Toyota owners reported a forced-down accelerator pedal that could lead to a crash. Initially, it was believed that the floor mat in the models was to blame. As such, Toyota sent a letter to its owners stating that "no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured." Subsequently, the United States National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) retorted with a statement implying that Toyota’s action didn’t go far enough.

While the NHTSA had also recommended that consumers remove the floor mats, they also indicated that this is "simply an interim measure.” The Agency wouldn’t consider the problem solved until Toyota came up with "a suitable vehicle-based solution.” This response from NHTSA, as well as additional external pressure, finally got Toyota to recall cars. Even then, after recalling 4 million vehicles in November 2009, the company’s initial reason for a forced-down accelerator pedal came under fire. By January, the company widened the recall by several million cars, saying it had discovered mechanical problems with accelerator pedals. The third chapter came in February 2010, when yet more cars were recalled because of flaws in antilock braking software.

2011 Earthquake and Tsunami

The March 11 earthquake, which was followed by a tsunami that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, became the second incident within a very short time span that demonstrated wavering judgment. No one could have imagined the scale and damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, so it is hard to be critical of any response. Even the best crisis management plans may not have taken into account the catastrophic result of this epic natural disaster. Nonetheless, the government – in its evacuation announcements – seemed to be too conservative in judging the scale of potential radiation danger and, as a result, continued to minimize the required zone of evacuation. They accused other governments of creating panic in calling for broad evacuation of their citizens. However, and over time, the Japanese government had to widen their breadth of evacuation as more facts came to light.

PSN Outage

Sony PlayStation’s incident followed the same pattern as the two incidents above: conservative action and limited communication that has been perceived as not wanting to admit the potential, broader impact of an issue at hand. Sometime in late April, hackers attacked PSN and another Sony property. In response, Sony brought down the PSN network on April 20. Sony’s action was admirable given its quick response to an external intrusion. However, the challenge is that Sony did not acknowledge publically that there might have been a breach of customer data until about a week later.

Sony seemed to have been investigating this possibility internally, but they did not inform the public that this could be a scenario. Was it fair that Sony was investigating if customer data may have been accessed (including credit card numbers, email and billing addresses) without alerting the public about the true risk? Again, while some have applauded Sony’s excellent communications campaign which has keep customers regarding the network outage, many have pointed out that the company should have warned customers too late that their data may have been at risk.

There's a clear lesson from Japan: take the offensive, vs. a defensive, approach. The public today, no matter where in the world, demands greater transparency by brands with respect to information and processes that concerns them and a potential risk to their future. As the example of Sony illustrates, it’s no longer enough to investigate a problem and then announce the results. The public demands to know up front that there is a problem in the first place and that they may be at risk. In the case of Toyota, the company clearly aimed to minimize the issue at hand, only facing a worsening reputation after not reacting to the issue swiftly and openly. The Japanese government did itself a disservice when not wanting to alarm the public; from their citizen's eyes, the government just wasn't aggressive enough. It’s no longer about controlling perception but about taking every step to safeguard. It’s not about putting the brand or government image first, but protecting citizens in a world in which we are increasingly vulnerable—and aware.

Beyond Japan, these stories have broad implications for every communications specialist. Communication strategy — particularly in crisis communications —needs to take a stronger offensive. Communication executives need to operate at the highest levels in the organization, actively pinpointing where action needs to be taken when issues arise that may evolve into broader challenges. Crisis communications cannot respond to disaster alone, but needs to identify broader organizational issues that the public will feel that they have a right to know about. The public – now more than ever – believes that they have a right to know more about the companies in which they place their trust.

   Karen Attyah is a communications consultant based in Cape Town, South Africa.

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