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Good PR and crisis management plans needed more than ever

By Chris Betros

For so long in Japan, whenever a company was confronted with a crisis, the CEO or president would apologize and bow deeply at a press conference…and that was about it. That no longer works, as we are seeing in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster. Having a crisis management plan in place is now essential for most companies. Some do it well, some not so well.

This is where PR companies like Edelman come in. One of the world’s largest PR companies and an independently family owned business, Edelman specializes in creative brand marketing, corporate communications, crisis management, digital, media relations, B2B communications and social media engagement. The company, which has 53 offices around the world, has been in Japan for six years.

Heading up Edelman Japan KK is Australian Ross Rowbury who first came to Japan 34 years ago to work in investment banking. After 16 years, Rowbury moved into the world of PR, working for companies such as Gavin Anderson and PRAP Japan. He took up his current role as president and representative director of Edelman Japan KK one year ago.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Rowbury at the Edelman offices in Toranomon to hear more.

How was the PR industry doing pre-quake?

After the Lehman Shock in 2008, the PR industry was hit very badly, particularly in demand for corporate public relations. That bottomed out about February of last year and we started to see a pretty good recovery. There was a lot of shifting of funds from advertising to public relations. As a result of the Lehman Shock, a number of people discovered that advertising was no longer the way to go and that PR was a somewhat cheaper and more effective alternative.

And since the March 11 disaster?

There were a lot of cancellations of events and self-restraint by our clients, so our results for March were down about 20% but still up on last year. However, we have seen it come back with a vengeance in April and May. We were working right through Golden Week. There are a lot of activities being planned for the next few months. It is positive to see that the mood is changing. It will be interesting to see whether it will be sustained going forward.

What are Edelman’s strengths?

Edelman is distinctive in that it is one of the world’s largest PR companies but it is an independently family owned business. We are not part of a major advertising group. We can draw on the experience of our network around the globe, particularly in countries where PR is a little more sophisticated than in Japan. We are entrepreneurial in spirit, we are very focused on our clients, research-based and we believe in producing measurable results. That’s part of our DNA.

What trends are happening in the PR industry?

I think that in the long term, we will see a convergence between public relations and advertising. The days of PR and advertising being mutually exclusive within the context of a client’s marketing plan have finished. We are seeing a much more direct relationship between the way those two different disciplines function. An advertising campaign may kick off a brand but it will be the PR on top of that that creates the emotional bonding.

What role will social media play?

Until recently, in the PR industry, when we talked about media, there was earned media (creating stories and asking journalists to write things about our clients), paid media, which is advertising; and there was owned media which is the PR company’s own website. Now we see the growing influence of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The vast majority of social media activity in Japan has been anonymous. A few years ago, I read that Japanese was the most used language in blogs globally, but that the Japanese were least likely to buy something based on blogs. Blogs were seen as personal logs and had no credibility. Then along came Twitter and for whatever reason, Japanese took to it and through it, Japanese learned to become private in public, even to using their real names. Twitter has changed the dynamic of social media in Japan. The other thing that is happening is that the traditional media are becoming digital. The Nikkei online version is actually doing quite well, despite a pay wall.

Whether PR is done via TV, newspapers, PC screen, mobile phones or tablets, as they all converge, ultimately it will become not about the platform but about the content of the message.

How do you market Edelman in Japan?

The most effective marketing method for us is word of mouth -- referrals from clients. We do presentations on the chamber circuit and share industry insight in some magazine articles. The company also does globally recognized pieces of research, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer which is announced at Davos every year.

Who are your clients?

Global clients account for about 70% of our revenue. Increasingly, we are getting more Japanese companies which are going overseas, so we coordinate their international PR efforts from the Tokyo office.

How does the concept of PR in Japan differ from other markets?

I think other markets are little bit more sophisticated than Japan in terms of PR tools. Another difference is the objective of PR. In the West, PR is about providing information to create a discussion or debate among your stakeholders so they can make better informed decisions. For example, web-based programs that build communities are very effective in the U.S. In Japan, because it is a monocultural society, my personal view is that PR is about doing something different, creating permission to move away from what is perceived as being the Japanese “joshiki” (common sense) to adopt a new product or service. It’s how you create that permission which is the role of PR in Japan. We did some experimental work last year with web communities in Japan and it doesn’t work. No one puts in content. You need someone to lead the discussion.

In the past, Japanese companies did not make a big effort to communicate and the PR section was just a few desks tucked away in the corner. That’s a very different dynamic to the diverse societies of the U.S., Australia and Europe. Now, of course, we are seeing some diversity and companies have to make a greater effort to communicate, especially in the area of crisis management.

This has become a major issue in Japan now, hasn’t it?

There have been a number of corporate scandals over the past 10 years, culminating in TEPCO’s response to the March 11 disaster. The public now has a much higher expectation of a company’s ability to communicate effectively. Bowing and apologizing at press conferences are no longer enough. Some companies understand this, but the majority are still in that antiquated process.

How do you work with your clients on crisis management?

There are crisis prevention and crisis management. We do both with our clients. I’ve known companies in the past, where we have gone in and asked to see their crisis manual. They blow off the dust and you open up to the communications tree and half the people are no longer there. So we sit down with them and analyze their potential for a communications crisis and look at the whole spectrum of possible disasters. Then we help them create a manual or series of protocols to be able to address those different situations. We have a specialist crisis training team to work with CEOs.

Crises place companies in very difficult situations and they try to make the best of communications they can. I think companies like BP and Toyota made some fundamental mistakes in the early days of their trouble last year. It goes back to what I said before: Companies have to adopt and internalize a worst crisis scenario in their planning. Instead, what we have seen time and time again is a lot of companies trying to limit the scope of the damage. They define the crisis and its extent too early. Then when it is revealed to be much bigger, they lose their credibility later.

Do you ever advise CEOs to step down?

In the past, I have advised a CEO in Japan to resign and he did. In other cases, I have advised that the CEO not step down. But at some time, there is always a public expectation that someone will take responsibility for closure.

Do clients always take your advice?

Sometimes they don’t. That is often driven by things like a client’s internal politics. All we can do is be the objective eye.

What’s your personal view of what we’ve seen from TEPCO and the government since March 11?

For the first week, all we saw on TV were disaster images, those AC government ads and long press conferences. TEPCO were doing 2 and 3-hour-long press conferences. That’s not the way to run a press conference. There was no clear message, no sense of what they were trying to communicate. All were televised and the one thing I noticed was that they were talking to the journalists and not the viewers or general public. It was hard to see any consistent message or understand what they were trying to communicate. The first few press conferences by Prime Minister Kan and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano were very good, I thought, but after that, more people got involved and the message got lost.

What makes a good PR person?

You have to be interested in the world around you. You have to be a person who is interested in new things, look at advertising and know what’s going on in society. You have to be a good communicator and outgoing. You need to have good writing skills because you’ll need to take something from a client and condense it down into something that is convincing, compelling and interesting, otherwise no one is going to read it.

Tell us about your team? Where do you get them from?

We have 35 staff here, including four foreigners. Everyone is totally bilingual; most have lived overseas. We have average turnover of staff for the industry. We have some who came from other PR companies, while others are from outside the industry. Some we took as new graduates. We also have an internship program and hopefully they will join us when they graduate. We have used job recruitment sites from time to time but generally we get introductions through our own website. My biggest problem now, and I’m not complaining, is that we have filled the office in the past year. My aim is to grow even further and double the size of the business in the next five years.

What is a typical day for you?

I get up about 7 and look at emails from the States. I do some interacting with the network and then check news sites. I live about 15 minutes away and get here around 9 a.m. Every day is different. Some days it may be a new business pitch, or brainstorming, internal meetings, client reviews or going to visit clients in another city.

Are you a hands-on boss?

My general approach is to delegate as much as possible. I don’t believe in micromanaging. I will normally give strategic direction and let the team fill in the gaps. Our staff are smart and can come up with great ideas. I tend to be more hands on in crises and issues management where there is a large degree of strategic consultation needed.

How do you like to relax?

I like to drive, and I enjoy photography.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Reckon Sony might need their PR department working overtime. Japan Inc can't afford to have a meltdown with China on the rise.

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Give me a call. I wrote the Crisis Communication Plan for the last two places I've worked.


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I do some interacting with the network and then check news sites.

Too contrived for my company.

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As the founder of a small-but-growing business, I truly appreciate Mr. Rowberry sharing his insights!

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Words are cheap. True test is how many companies do what they say? At the end of the day, are companies willing to not be afraid of losing money so that they can pursue words with action? If they can stay the course, you are better equipped to be a successful. Even if it fail, at least you will know that fear didn’t get the best of you. In the long run, it is a good feeling to know you looked fear in the eye and took it on, regardless of the results. Count yourself as a doer, not a talker. The world will recognize and appreciate the difference.

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Regarding TEPCO:

It was hard to see any consistent message or understand what they were trying to communicate.

Oh please, spare me the glossy brochure. This is a nuclear crisis, y'know? I'd rather have TEPCO pump out "boring" facts and figures than gloss the situation up and coat it in spin. They've done enough of that in their history already. This is a different kind of crisis to, say, the one Sony is currently facing with its data leaks. Let's try to keep it as honest as possible, shall we?

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a lie is a lie even if coated with sugar Mum and Dad must be proud of their boy

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