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Six months into his term, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces unprecedented troubles. From getting COVID-19 vaccines distributed as quickly as possible, to ensuring the Tokyo Games are held safely and dealing with a political scandal related to a family member, he must deal with issues that would test the mettle of any prime minister.

But Suga’s attempts to reassure the nation, especially through televised news briefings, are floundering. A poll by Kyodo News last weekend showed a Cabinet support rate of 42.1%, and about 54% of supporters said the only reason they felt that way was because they couldn’t see anyone else appropriate for the position.

Political pundits and communications experts point out that, regardless of the content of his policies and statements, the prime minister is doing a poor job at conveying his message and convincing people of his leadership qualities. At first glance, this might appear surprising. Suga, as chief Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was the government’s chief spokesperson, dealing with reporters on a daily basis.

But how Suga dealt with the media then appears to be part of the problem now.

“As Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga never spoke excessively, and often said as little as possible, while reading aloud what was written on a paper in front of him. That’s fine when you are in that position. But as the nation’s leader, you have to send a clear message to people, and Suga is working more on using his own words to get his message out now,” says political journalist Tetsuo Suzuki, who has covered Suga for about 15 years.

When speaking in front of television cameras at formal news conferences or during Diet testimonies, Suga can look uncomfortable, his eyes often shifting or looking down at pieces of paper in front of him rather than at the camera. At his inaugural news conference as prime minister in September 2020, he did not use a teleprompter, something that many other world leaders have long used for speeches and televised appearances.

In other formal news conferences since then, he has often placed his hands on the sides of the podium, giving him a somewhat defensive look. Most answers to reporters’ questions have been fairly succinct.

On the other hand, at informal press gaggles, which are more impromptu, Suga doesn’t look down. In those situations, unlike news conferences, most of the questions he fields have not been submitted in advance.

And while he may still look at his notes during formal news conferences, presumably because he is reading his prepared response, he does that less now than he once did, at least during the question and answer session.

Members of the media attend a news conference held by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on March 5. | POOL /VIA REUTERS
Members of the media attend a news conference held by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on March 5. | POOL /VIA REUTERS

Keiko Ishikawa, a public relations and risk management consultant who offers media training, said that Suga’s choice of vocabulary is not that bad. Rather, it’s how he attempts to convey the words that is the problem.

“As his facial expressions and words and phrasing almost never vary, there’s no strength in his eyes. We can’t understand what he wants to emphasize and where his heart is,” she said. “His articulation is bad, so he could improve by practicing moving his mouth, speaking clearly and changing the tempo of his speech.”

Suga appears to have heard the criticism and has been trying to adjust his speaking style, first using a teleprompter at a Feb. 2 press conference. It came after Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan member Renho criticized Suga’s speaking style during earlier questioning in the Upper House.

The opposition lawmaker said Suga’s looking down and reading answers failed to convey a sense of crisis and that he had been rude. Suga may have taken the criticism to heart — he said at his news conference that, as each person will decide what to take away from the message, he wanted to make use of the teleprompter, at least at formal news conferences, as a way to clearly convey his meaning.

As a result, Suga used a teleprompter again at his March 18 news conference to announce the lifting of the state of emergency for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, with the text displayed to the right and left sides of the podium. But he appeared to be squinting at the teleprompter at times when reciting his opening remarks and rarely glanced at the camera. During the question and answer session, however, he seemed to relax a bit and appeared more natural.

“Prime Minister Suga still needs to work on expressing his emotions better. But at the March 18 press conference, it seems he made more of an effort to open his eyes compared with past press conferences. I also felt that the number of times he stared at reporters was less than at previous press conferences,” Ishikawa said.

Suzuki contrasts Suga with his predecessor, saying that while Abe was thorough in his communications strategy, he sometimes made misstatements at news conferences because he spoke too much.

Suga, on the other hand, told reporters at his last briefing as chief Cabinet secretary that he believed a reason for his success was because he never spoke excessively, an attitude that Ishikawa said likely remained with him when he first became prime minister.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on March 18. | BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on March 18. | BLOOMBERG

Beyond the prime minister’s own natural personal communication style and demeanor in front of the camera, the media operation around them also contributes to the leader’s public perception, often providing specific advice on tone of voice and body language as well as drafting speeches and statements.

Other countries have different ways the leadership’s media team gets the message out. In the United States, for example, media professionals, sometimes former journalists or public relations specialists from the private sector, may introduce the president at a news conference and ask that reporters keep their questions to a minimum. But the president decides which reporters to call on and they often ask — and the president will often take — immediate follow-up questions, resulting in a mini-dialogue between the president and the reporter.

In Japan, by contrast, news conferences are more tightly controlled. The moderator, the public relations’ secretary, is a civil servant promoted to the position, not a private sector employee who joined the administration out of loyalty to a political party or the prime minister. The moderator demands that reporters ask one question each, which most comply with, and extended follow up questions are rare. As a result, the kind of longer exchanges seen at the White House between one reporter and the president are uncommon.

At a news conference, the prime minister also waits for the moderator to pick which reporter to call on, rather than doing so themselves. At press gaggles, Suga’s executive secretary has repeatedly demanded that journalists identify themselves when asking questions, something that in the past was not always done at these informal sessions. The existence of the moderator keeps things polite and restrained compared with a White House news conference.

However, the structure can also lead to a greater sense of distance between the prime minister and the public. A charismatic leader who is comfortable on camera, such as former prime ministers Abe and Junichiro Koizumi, can often overcome this feeling. Less media-savvy prime ministers, meanwhile, can be perceived as poor leaders.

Suzuki suggests that because Suga is a man of few words and a political fighter, unafraid of firing people or expressing anger at questions he doesn’t like, he scares reporters and bureaucrats, who then don’t want to get close to him. The result is they can’t communicate effectively with him, which also hinders his ability to get his message out.

Ishikawa points to Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi as an example of a politician whose experience might offer a few pointers on how to become a better communicator.

“The younger Koizumi was once not all that well spoken, but he has been passionate about media communication. He studied rakugo (traditional storytelling) and listened to recordings of his own talks and speeches, researching and making improvements to his presentation, and he practiced how to speak in a way that touches the heart,” she added.

In dealing with reporters at news conferences, Ishikawa said, Suga needs to remember that his main audience is not just those in the room.

“He needs to be aware of the people he is speaking to, not the reporter in front of him,” she said.

Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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