Japan stormed back in 2013. Even the staunchest critics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have had to admit that his administration managed to achieve roaring success in its first year. This success owes much to a shift of perception based on an excellently devised and executed public relations strategy. Ten months ago, I even predicted that PR would be the “fourth arrow” of “Abenomics” in this column.
Recently, however, the first cracks have appeared in Abe’s successful PR strategy. The introduction of the state secrecy law did not go down well with the general public. What’s more, recent remarks by Abe, mainly in the area of foreign policy, have unraveled observers at home and abroad.
While Abenomics was launched with decisive action in the areas of monetary policy and fiscal spending, its success over the first 12 months was only possible through a powerful shift of perception. Expectation about Abe’s economic policy brought the yen down as it lifted the Nikkei index up.
Abe even managed to link the consumption tax increase and, thus, fiscal rehabilitation with his promise to raise wages and end the deflationary spiral. Clear and consistent messaging by all government players created a virtuous cycle of expectation and action. Abe’s team of PR advisers — which include Hiroshige Seko, a former communications director at NTT, and Eiichi Hasegawa, a former Boston consulting adviser — has devised the right PR strategy and ensured that everybody has been kept on message.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former London correspondent for Nikkei Business, has written most of Abe’s speeches and succeeded in inserting the right tone and sound bites, especially when appealing to overseas audiences. However, even the best communications strategy only works as long as everyone sticks to it. It gets weakened if the top spokesperson starts to act independently, and this is exactly what’s beginning to happen now.
One recent example came at the Davos meeting in Switzerland. Abe impressed his audience with a powerful speech delivered in English and successfully transmitted his key message that “Japan is back.” Once again, his team had excelled in its preparations.
Ian Bremmer, U.S. political scientist and head of the Eurasia Group, described his reception as “extremely favorable on many fronts.” However, Abe went off script and strongly commented on the strained Japan-China relationship. Fielding questions from a reporter, he compared the current situation in Asia with the U.K.-Germany relationship before World War I, a view that quickly made international headlines.
This forced Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to deliver a hasty official explanation that Abe did not want a Japan-Sino war to break out. Later, the government claimed a translation error. But the damage was done. An otherwise excellent performance at Davos was overshadowed by a single spontaneous comment. Bremmer described Abe’s comment as “not the sort of thing the audience is used to hearing from a head of state” — which is a valid point.
Even the Liberal Democratic Party-friendly Yomiuri Shimbun said that “statements that create unnecessary misunderstanding and uncertainty in the international community do not benefit Japan. Tokyo should avoid making such remarks and should exercise greater caution over such improper communication.”
Overseas critics, in particular in China and South Korea, are exploiting such unscripted remarks. However, opposition is also growing on the home front. If Morihiro Hosokawa prevails in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, he will put up an even more powerful domestic opposition than the actual opposition parties in the Diet. A Hosokawa victory will likely result in a high-stake confrontation over the future course of nuclear energy in Japan. Such a debate will not only be highly emotional, it will also be driven by Hosokawa in tandem with a PR-savvy ally — former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
PR is not a substitute for sound policy. However, good or bad PR does make a difference when it comes to the success of a policy. Abe has a unique opportunity to nurture a sustainable economic revival that is driven and supported by positive perceptions of the country’s future. He should continue to stick to the government’s overall script and not allow single remarks to deflect from this course.
Dr. Jochen Legewie is managing director of German communications consultancy CNC Japan. Follow his blog at www.cncblogs.jp.