Japan 2011: In a Crisis Response Project, Communication is Key

by Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

As the world knows by now, on 11 March 2011 Japan experienced a massive earthquake that spawned a powerful tsunami, resulting in thousands of tragic deaths and an unprecedented nuclear emergency. Our hearts go out to the Japanese people in this time of disaster. Our admiration goes out to them, as well, for the incredible spirit of common purpose that has brought them together to halt the progress of damage, bring order to temporary, difficult living situations, and, already, to begin the rebuilding process.

We focus here on the nuclear emergency, dubbed the world’s worst in a quarter century. The earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear facility  kicking off a series of technical failures. Local organizations, along with a global cadre of high-level helpers, are working diligently to stem the progress of further damage to health, structures, the landscape, and commerce.

Comments about the technical response to this disaster are best left to nuclear experts. We remark here on the communication plans and actions associated with the crisis response. Many news sources have identified the limitations and liabilities of the Japanese approach to sharing information about the situation, complaining that officials from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) have under-reported or delayed reporting the extent of the nuclear dangers emanating from the damaged Fukushima plant. While some of this clearly is an outgrowth of a Japanese cultural bias against sharing bad news, the delays and perceived whitewashing of information have led to distrust within and outside Japan.

This isn’t the only crisis response we have had the opportunity to watch up-close. We’ve witnessed plant closures, sinking bridges,  short-lived disease epidemics, and other misfortunes. Clearly, some have been handled better than others. Although the story isn’t over yet in Japan, here are some universal lessons about project communication this serious set of events has highlighted in our minds:

  1. Do not under-report the magnitude of bad news. The gap between your story and reality will eventually be discovered (and typically sooner rather than later).
  2. Silence is not golden. In the absence of crisis information, stakeholders are unlikely to believe “no news is good news.” In fact, if those in charge remain silent, people will create their own artificial realities, often many times worse than what could have been truthfully disclosed.
  3. Rumor mills work powerfully and virally. Damaging rumors that fill an information void will be passed from person to person via every network imaginable, and spiral out of control. The result can be pandemonium.
  4. It’s hard to recover after a bad start. Once you’ve been caught mis- or under-reporting the actual situation, few are likely to  believe anything you say going forward, even if you really have mended your ways.
  5. Build confidence. When you do share bad news, also tell people what you are doing about it and how they can help. Make them part of the solution. No one wants to be a passive victim.