Watching TEPCO handle the Fukushima reactor crisis, I’m reminded of Strother Martin’s famous line, “What we got here is failure to communicate.”
TEPCO’s failure was so complete that it is difficult to focus on any part, but for the moment let’s consider how to it dealt with the numbers. In crisis communication, as in investor relations, there are the numbers and there is no changing those. They are what they are. Your only hope is explaining “why” they are what they are, and, if you’re really lucky, “how” you’ll try to change them. That’s it.
If the corporation does not put its numbers in context, someone else will, and they are under no obligation to do it fairly. The anti-nuclear energy crowd seems to be better organized and often appears as the sole nuclear expert in news stories, such as in the fourth paragraph here.
Let’s look at the coverage of the upgrade of the crisis to a Level 7, here, here, and here. Fukushima’s upgrade was based on the total amount of radiation released – roughly 10 percent (though if the release continues, much more) of Chernobyl. This needed to be part of the lead and in the headline: “Crisis upgraded to Level 7 based on total radiation released,” but look how far into these stories you have to read before you get to the number. This is the “why” of the story, but its near the middle or lower in every story. Now look at TEPCO’s handling of it. It could have cited why it was rated a Level 7, but it simply acknowledges the rating. I know, regulations and all that, but there could have been something more here. This looks like TEPCO falling on its sword rather than trying to give a full, honest accounting.
TEPCO consistently posts data without much explanation. Most of what it does is simply from tradition and style. There is a reluctance for Japanese corporations to explain themselves and this really hurts them when they have a crisis, particularly if they are dealing with the international press.
There’s nothing wrong with putting your numbers in context if it is accurate. Putting the numbers in perspective helps people to better understand what the numbers mean — not “x number microsierverts,” but “x number of microsierverts, or the equivalent of half a year’s worth of background radiation.” Instead, TEPCO simply dumps its data in terse releases that are difficult understand. If you make it hard for reporters, you make it hard for your company, too.
Recently, TEPCO began pumping out 25,000 tons of highly radioactive water from one of the reactors. Does anybody have any idea how much 25,000 tons of water is? Neither do I. Maybe engineers measure their water in tons, but everyone else uses volume rather than weight. Nobody buys half a kilo of water at a convenience store, so why not do what the Wall Street Journal does here and explain the amount in Olympic swimming pool equivalencies. You learn 25,000 metric tons (2,200 pounds) equals about 10 OSP (Olympic swimming pools). That’s much easier to imagine than 25,000 tons, which has no meaning to most people.
Press releases are explanations to the public. The worse a corporation does with these, the less likely its actions will be understood and the more likely that its information will be doubted. Opacity looks like a thin veil of deceit and audiences assume that it is.
Several years ago, I advised the Republic of Botswana’s Embassy in Japan. At that time, Botswana was well known for one number — the highest AIDS/HIV rate in the world. That was true, but a more accurate statement, and one I insisted upon, was that Botswana had the highest documented AIDS rate in the world. This often resulted in a parenthetical explanation that many sub-Saharan countries had yet to document AIDS rates. It also highlighted that Botswana was doing something about its problem, allowing an opening to mention a different number – a third of all gem quality diamonds came from Botswana and this revenue was used in the war against AIDS. The story often changed from “highest AIDS rate in the world,” to “diamond revenue in the war against AIDS.”
Crisis communication is almost never about winning the game, but about staying close and avoiding a devastating loss. TEPCO’s executives mishandled the crisis, clearly, but the company’s public communications has exacerbated the situation.