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Blunders with North show Japan still child at handling media

by Jochen Legewie

Earlier this month, when many in Japan were enjoying the arrival of spring and the accompanying cherry blossoms, something else was in the sky, something much more dangerous than a warm breeze: a three-stage missile, launched from North Korea.

The launch was meant to be taken as concrete proof the country ought to be taken more seriously by other world players, especially the United States.

Although the missile failed to travel as far as planned and was thus a technical failure, the exercise did manage to scare a lot of Japanese citizens. From this point of view, the launch could be seen as a success in the kind of negative PR style North Korea has used for decades.

The ultimate objective of North Korea’s missile launch was to give it a new bargaining chip in the six-party talks. There it aims to get aid and other concessions in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons program, stresses Kim Tae Woo, an analyst at South Korea’s Institute for Defense Analyses.

The handling of the missile launch shows some media savvy on the part of the North Koreans. They strategically decided to fire it on a Sunday morning, thus assuring it would get maximum exposure by the Japanese media, which fed the public live updates throughout the day.

In the countryside — and even parts of Tokyo — neighborhood PA systems blared announcements urging citizens to switch on their TVs and radios to get updates on the launch, further increasing the sense of unease. Some people may have been reminded of their wartime days.

A crisis usually presents a government with an opportunity to demonstrate public leadership and boost its popularity via the media. But while North Korea succeeded in scaring the Japanese public, the Japanese government failed miserably in turning the situation to its own advantage.

Instead, the government angered the media with communication problems in the Defense Ministry, which sounded false alarms on Saturday and had to issue several corrections Sunday after the rocket was already in the air.

But what was even more damaging was the absence of Prime Minister Taro Aso, who was remarkably invisible on April 5 and in the following days when his government could have scored rare brownie points by giving the public a clear display of leadership.

That this failure occurred is even more surprising when one considers the fact that Aso needs every chance to boost his popularity ahead of the pivotal election his party faces before September.

A quick look beyond Japan’s borders reveals how other governments and leaders have fared when it comes to communicating in a crisis.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made efficient use of the global economic crisis to convince the public to submit to unpopular decisions. And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was already facing calls to resign in July before his popularity soared over his deft handling of the crisis at its onset.

Natural disasters have proven great opportunities for wise leaders as well.

Back in the summer of 2002, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was expected to lose power in a national election that was just months away. Parts of the former East Germany were struck by flooding; Schroeder went on a weeklong crisis management campaign that received wide coverage and boosted his ratings, resulting in re-election months later.

Even the Chinese government knows how to capitalize on catastrophe. During the Sichuan earthquake in spring 2008, it put a human face on the tragedy and showed it to national and international media as it dealt with the disaster at home, silencing voices that had been very critical of Tibet and China’s human rights record just before the quake struck.

These comments are not to be taken as cynicism. They are just meant to illustrate how differently things work in Japan, where there is an obvious lack of PR strategy in politics. One need only think of the numerous blunders and ad-hoc statements made recently by politicians, such as calling women “birthing machines,” that have all too often angered the media and the public and caused more than a few forced retirements.

Perhaps profiting from such errors is one of Aso’s strategies. When his opponent, DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, came under fire after the chief accountant of his fundraising organization was indicted, Ozawa committed almost every PR mistake possible by ignoring the basics of effective crisis communications.

His first mistake was to deny the allegations outright, although they later led to the indictment of his secretary, thus making him look very bad. He then tried to cast blame on others, thus showing he does not accept responsibility. Finally, he just became evasive on the subject, which had the effect of both of the previous actions.

As a result, the discomfort the media and the public are feeling with Ozawa — and indirectly with the DPJ — is increasing the chances that the LDP will prevail in the upcoming election. This means the re-election of Aso and the LDP would effectively be a byproduct of their opponents’ failed crisis PR.

Although the missile scare of April 5 was no laughing matter, one must concede that Kim Jong Il was able to adroitly manipulate his country’s scant resources to considerable effect.

But when considering the gaffes and miscues that occur so routinely in the realm of Japanese politics, one can only ask: When will this nation’s leaders learn how to effectively and properly handle the media?

Progress in this area might revive the ever-dwindling interest in Japanese politics at home and overseas.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K.