executive impact

Cosmo PR: Getting the right message out

By Chris Betros

The business of public relations has changed in recent years as companies seek a more comprehensive marketing presence that includes a digital as well as traditional media approach. The most successful PR companies are those that change with the times to meet changing market needs. One of those is COSMO, which was founded in 1960, and remains one of Japan’s most innovative and creative strategic communications consultancies. Anticipating market trends, over the past decade COSMO changed its focus to healthcare, food and food science.

Overseeing operations is Kumi Sato, president and CEO, who took over the reigns of COSMO in 1987. Sato has been recognized numerous times for her leadership in business. A graduate of Wellesley College, with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, she was awarded Harvard Business School Club of Japan’s “Business Stateswoman of the Year” in 2012. In 2011, she was recognized by the Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards, winning the “Outstanding Individual Achievement” award. In 2010, she became the first Japanese to be recognized by Campaign – a major trade publication – as Asia-Pacific Agency Head of the Year at the prestigious PR Week Awards in Hong Kong. In July 2000, Business Week featured Sato as one of its “Stars of Asia - 50 Leaders at the Forefront of Change.” In April 2000, the Star Group selected her as one of the “50 Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World.”

Sato is an active member of several committees and boards in Japan. She served as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (ACCJ) in Japan for two terms, in 2011 and 2012, and is also the vice-chair of the ACCJ’s Labor Diversification Task Force. She is the author of two books: “Aisareru Kaisha no Joken” (2007), which compares views on CSR by Japanese and American companies, and “Communication Leadership” (2012), which discusses strategic communications.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits the COSMO offices in Azabudai to hear more.

How has the nature of PR changed over the past 10 years?

The current trend is for PR companies to provide a more comprehensive offering -- including a digital marketing presence -- for their clients. The industry is divided into two camps – those who can do that, and those who cannot. We have tried to become more strategic in the communications area, which meant we had to almost reinvent ourselves, so we are now talking to our clients’ marketing managers as opposed to just PR managers, as was the case before. We had to really quickly embrace digital methods to understand the power and offerings of new digital services. That is why we provide all our staff with iPads, for example.

Another change for us was that we decided it was really important to focus on a specific industry. We chose healthcare -- meaning drugs and medical devices. Most of the new clients coming to COSMO now are in healthcare.

How has 2013 been so far?

It has been a bit slower than we would like. Many companies are currently in the process of working out their 2014 budgets, so we are bidding for 2014 business.

How is your business divided?

Foreign companies account for 60-65% of our business. In terms of sectors, 65% are in healthcare, and the rest are food and food science-related companies. Before, we used to help foreign companies come into the Japanese market, but we are doing more marketing communications for Japanese companies.

How is the healthcare sector doing?

It’s growing well. This year, we won a great number of clients in the pharmaceutical industry. We set up a division called COSMO Healthcare and have been strengthening relationships with government, doctors and patients’ groups. It’s become a passion for me. I am always with doctors and I have a daughter going to medical school, and I learn from her. In my next life, I would like to be a doctor!

When working with the world of medicine, you really have to know the field. It has been a huge learning experience for everyone, including myself. We hired people right out of college with specialized knowledge in health management and we hired a bunch of advisers. We have a live database of doctors and patients’ group, and that is growing.

What sort of person makes a good PR consultant?

You need to be creative and a good writer but ideally, a good PR person is somebody who can look at a project or campaign and say: “I think this is something the public can relate to, that it will resonate with a third party.”

What are clients looking for from you?

In healthcare, clients want us to educate the public…therapeutic education, if you like. Let’s say you cough a lot and you wonder why. You may have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). We have been running a digital campaign for a client in which we invite people to write their wishes on an “ema” (votive tablet) and we put them online. It might be a simple message from a child to her father asking him to please stop smoking. The point of the campaign is awareness building and hopefully a call to action to go to a doctor and get diagnosed correctly. Communication doesn’t mean anything unless you get someone to do something. That’s the kind of thing that clients are asking for us to do – a call to action and what it leads to.

Do foreign clients accept that their global PR campaigns have to be tweaked for Japan?

They realize that. But you know, if something is a good idea overseas, it will work in Japan. It may just need to be localized a little bit, such as the example I gave above, about putting a message on an “ema.” The idea of sending a message to a father is global. It just has to be tweaked a little.

How does PR differ from advertising?

As a PR company, we create the reasoning behind why you, the consumer, should do something, whereas advertising is all about “buy me, buy me.” We’re not saying “buy me;” rather we are getting a third party to like an idea and want to share it. You could say that PR is “Trust me.”

Speaking of trust, we are seeing an increasing number of scandals involving many Japanese companies. Do you do much crisis management work?

Crisis management is increasingly important for us, especially since we handle PR for food-related companies. Unfortunately, the way many Japanese companies deal with a crisis is no good. It’s ridiculous to see a top exec just bowing at a press conference. It’s an area that Japan is having a challenging time tackling. Why don’t they tell the truth on a timely basis? How difficult is that? It goes back to the education system. If Japanese people don’t have a perfect answer or solution, they don’t submit it. We’re saying that there is no time for that – get out there, take responsibility and act, and provide more info to the public as you get it. That’s something that execs and their handlers aren’t able to do. Having said that, if I feel a client is trying to hide the truth, I’ll walk away. However, if the truth is not being conveyed clearly or if a client is being unfairly judged, then I will take it on.

You are on many committees and are frequently in demand to be a guest speaker or write columns. How do you manage it all?

I do what I like at this stage, what feels good. I spent three years writing my last book, and now, I really like hanging out with doctors and regulators because I grew up with politicians and bureaucrats. I know about the PR business and doctors don’t, so we have a good dialogue. I have a good team I can rely on. My role is to be thinking about the next decade, meeting the right people, setting the right direction for the company.

What do you think about Abenomics?

I wish that with Abenomics, everyone would get on the band wagon -- regulatory agencies and not just the cabinet. Let’s work as a team or it won’t work. I really hope the third arrow – which I have been heavily involved with through the ACCJ (American Chamber of Commerce in Japan) perspective – really becomes specific and tangible and that they get on with it quickly.

The problem is that people are becoming too cynical. If they see more waste like pouring ODA into another country or putting up another building or digging another hole in the neighborhood just because they want use up a budget, then that will make people cynical. It has been 2 1/2 years since the earthquake. We had a chance to start again and make changes, but are we doing that? 85-90% of the people I talk to say no. And I think we have about another half a year before the cynicism creeps in. Abenomics is all about mood and change – actions where it counts. People have to see positive change. The outcome of TPP is something we are all closely watching.

What causes this inertia?

The government has to think out of the box. Many regulatory agencies stick to existing guidelines or regulations. We have good thinkers in Japan. The key is to find a model that works, then spread it out very quickly. That’s what I thought the concept of “tokku” (special economic zones) was about – a pilot project for a special economic zone in a certain area. What’s missing is the roll-out speed. It doesn’t require revamping any laws because that takes too long. Just tweak existing regulations.

Is COSMO a fun place to work?

I think so. I have an 85-year-old secretary who loves organizing office parties. We have about 40 staff and it is like a family. We have a party every three months and once-a-month birthday lunches. I encourage a work-life balance among staff and try to stay out of their hair.

How do you like to relax?

I entertain at home, play jazz piano and do pilates. I also like Korean dramas; my husband thinks my third book should be about Korean dramas.

© Japan Today

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Well done for having an 85 year-old secretary!

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Yes, well done all round, Ms. Sato. A Japanese woman, a wife, a mother, and a dynamo in the boardroom. Take that, bonbon munchers!

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Nice article, Kumi!

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Kudos Sato-san!

Very refreshing read! If Japan let more people like her lead here just think of the possibilities

Way to go!

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Japanese powerhouse

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

I met her in 1989 at her office -- was impressed then, and am impressed now. Glad to see she is still going strong.

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jpnguy, she's talking about the kind of ODA that just allows construction firms to profit without providing any help to the local populace. She didn't explain it in detail here, but she has in other interviews in the past.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Not much new here.

Wasn't Cosmo doing PR for Nissan back in the tilted trade era?

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