Japan firms ignore foreign media at own peril: expert

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Japanese companies need to improve their communication with the foreign media when attempting to expand their presence in overseas markets, says a Tokyo-based expert in corporate public relations.

The overseas media coverage of Japan’s nuclear crisis — sometimes criticized here as exaggerated or sensational — partly reflects the failure of the Japanese to release enough relevant information in English, according to Jochen Legewie, president of CNC Japan K.K.

The head of the Japanese unit of the German communications consultancy was speaking April 20 at a seminar organized by Keizai Koho Center on how Japanese firms can beef up their public relations and corporate communications skills vis-a-vis the foreign media — which he called “one of the stakeholders” in Japanese firms looking to expand abroad.

Legewie said foreign coverage of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant crisis, which was set in motion by the March 11 mega-quake and tsunami, was often inaccurate or contained mistakes partly because the Japanese side did not provide a sufficient amount of accurate and reliable information.

A lot of the foreign media reports were based on stereotypes, he said. For example, a photo of Japanese people wearing masks in Tokyo was carried in a German newspaper with a story about the Fukushima disaster, giving readers the misleading impression that Tokyoites were trying to protect themselves from radiation, instead of the annual spring pollen allergies.

Legewie stressed the importance of having a single spokesperson represent a Japanese company, especially in times of crisis.

“The foreign media had the impression that neither Tokyo Electric Power Co. nor the Japanese government had a strong spokesperson,” he said.

“In times of crisis, the spokesperson becomes crucial in establishing trust, credibility, confidence and control” in the government or company, he said.

The spokesperson, he said, should send out a message that matches the interests of both the foreign media and their audience, and disseminate it in English in a timely manner.

Japanese firms need to provide foreign press organizations a steady flow of ready-to-use information in English and understand that they operate differently from Japanese media entities, he said.

Whereas Japanese media reports tend to be explanatory and factual, those issued by most foreign media organizations are usually analytical and often seek to come up with a conclusion, he said.

“In the beginning, there was a lack of information (from Japan), especially in English,” Legewie said. Later, the foreign media were often given very detailed information, including tables and figures, but no easy-to-digest conclusions or explanations as to what was happening at the radiation-emitting plant, he said.

If the foreign media cannot get enough relevant and easy-to-use information from the Japanese government or Tepco to derive a conclusion from, they have to rely on and refer to analyses provided by overseas experts or international institutions that their readers trust more, he pointed out.

Japanese firms and foreign media should have more interactive communication, he said. “Ideally, Japan can make these (international) organizations and experts indirect spokespersons by providing a steady information flow to them as well,” he said.

Legewie cited two cases in which a Japanese company successfully communicated with the media in a country where they were engaged in a merger or acquisition of a local firm. These companies, he said, took the four steps of communication needed to complete a successful cross-border M&A: preparation, announcement, after-announcement measures and integration.

One was a Japanese apparel maker that bought a 100 percent stake in a small German apparel maker about five years ago.

During preparations for the merger announcement, the mayor of the town in which the German firm was based was identified as one of the key stakeholders because he was concerned about the loss of local jobs. After being convinced of the benefits of the takeover, the mayor became a strong spokesperson and local media liaison for the transaction, he said. This helped the takeover go smoothly, he added.

Employee communications came next. The employees were worried they might lose their jobs, so the former owner, a German, sent out a letter telling employees about the merger and how their jobs were guaranteed.

The Japanese company also managed to set up an exclusive interview between its president and a local magazine, which wrote a story about the deal that carried all the key messages they wanted to convey, Legewie said.

The second case involved a major Japanese electronics maker that purchased a German company several years ago. The successful takeover bid involved one part of the Japanese company being spun off to merge with the German firm.

In this case, both companies took the time to emphasize to both Japanese and international media entities during a news conference in Tokyo that the two would make a nice fit.

In addition, a roundtable discussion involving the president of the German firm was set up with German correspondents based in Tokyo immediately afterward. Since this measure ensured that a strategically timed report would penetrate German media coverage, both companies succeeded in creating positive news coverage about the takeover and eventually a smooth integration, he said.

These cases illustrate how communicating effectively with the local media is instrumental in sending out accurate messages about cross-border M&A deals and other events, Legewie said.