Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘crisis communications’

PR Meltdown: Bad Reputations Hamper Nuke Response

My experience in Japan – 12 years of it – colors my reaction to the triple tragedy that is unfolding in the country I love and called home for so long.  The earthquake itself was much stronger than any I felt while there, and I went through ones strong enough to empty theaters and drop plaster from ceilings.  I know the area most impacted and have met its industrious and warm people.  It’s disconcerting to think that I once stayed in a pretty family inn in a seaside fishing village that probably now has been washed out to sea.

But it is the third crisis, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor, that has the most potential for tragedy – and also represents by far the largest public relations melt down of all Japan has gone through.  (Note: I use “Dai-Ichi” instead of “daiichi” throughout because it means “No. 1,” and is two words.)

The Japan I knew when growing up was one where the government and the people were in close harmony, and business was mostly trusted.  Certainly, there were opposition parties and big-time political battles and scandals, but the 38-year successful run of the Liberal Democratic Party (which is conservative, despite its name), from 1955 through 1993, indicates a basic trust between the people and government. As for business, there were scandals including particularly damaging environmental ones, but all in all, the Japanese liked the economic miracle brought on by a business community that was in sync and supported by government.

How badly that’s broken down is evident in the wake of Fukushima.

Neither Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the plant, or the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which regulates it, has been able to win the trust of the people or the media following the accident.  There are lessons in what they’re going through that public relations professionals and government agencies can learn from.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win

Most obviously, Fukushima Dai-Ichi reminds us there are some crises that simply are not going to be handled well.  These are the cases where spokespeople are powerless to provide timely and accurate updates because no one has it.  In this case, no one really knows what’s going on in the plant because of the complex chemistry of nuclear reactions gone awry, just as no one knows what’s going to happen next because there are so many variables in play, from the success or failure of current initiatives to the way the wind will blow.

Tepco execs perform the mandatory apology bow

The cardinal rule of crisis communications is to not say anything until  you’re sure you have accurate information in-hand.  How can any public information officer hope to do this with any level of frequency and consistency in a situation like a nuclear plant meltdown as challenging as this one?  So, as far as the spokespeople go, we should all cut them some slack and hope their professional lives get better soon.

Radioactive Reputations

But even if they could get accurate information in a timely manner, it’s likely the spokespeople for this disaster would still be having a terrible time gaining credibility because both Tepco and NISA went into the crisis with their reputations seriously compromised. The performance of other Japanese nuclear plant operators also added to their problems.  Here’s a run-down of recent scandals:

  • In 2007, an earthquake caused heavy damage to Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.  The company said there had been no release of radiation, but later admitted there was a release, including radioactive water spilling into the Sea of Japan.
  • Tepco has ordered in 2006 to review all its safety records after it was revealed that the company  had been falsifying records of the temperature of plant coolants since at least 1985.
  • In 2002, a number of senior Tepco executive resigned in disgrace after NISA disclosed (far too late in many people’s estimation) that the company had covered up at least 29 cases of cracks and other damage to reactors.  Two Fukushima reactors were included in the scandal.  In 2003, the implications of this case impacted everyone on Japan’s power grid as Tepco was forced to shut down all of its reactors for safety inspections.
  • In 1999, Japan Atomic Power was criticized when it took 14 hours to shut down the Tsurugura plant in northern Japan after a cooling water leak.  Later it was learned the level of radiation in this accident was several times higher than originally announced.
  • In 1995, there were allegations of cover-up, falsification of reports, and editing of videotapes following a fire at the Monju reactor in central Japan. [Source for bullets here and here.]

Incidents like these weaken not only the credibility of Japan’s nuclear plant operators, but also the regulators at NISA who are supposed to be keeping a watchful eye over the industry.  Because of them, Japan’s nuclear industry and its regulators are going to suffer a long-term, highly damaging meltdown of the public’s trust in them.  The result is likely to be very painful and perhaps even fatal for nuclear power in Japan.  If there’s a way to buy stock in Chinese coal mining, you might want to consider doing so now because Japan may be looking for an alternative to nuclear power soon.

Tired But True

It’s a lesson that’s been around for as long as the spoken word:  There is a heavy cost associated with trying to cover things up.  It has never been more true than now – after all, it took me less than a minute to find the documentation cited above, so how does anyone think they can successfully pull the wool over the public’s eyes?  Even American presidents, the most powerful and protected people on the planet, have learned this hard lesson over and over again, from Grant with the Teapot Dome scandal to Clinton with the blue dress.

For any controversial industry (and really, what industry isn’t controversial at some level?), the decision to cover up is particularly foolish. The Japanese nuclear plant operators should have realized they would not succeed, and should have understood that one day – today – the consequences of their deceit would be very bad indeed. The regulators, if not complicit in the cover-up, should have realized that their oversight systems weren’t working and should have improved them.

Their only option now is the truth, nothing but the truth, and the whole truth, 24/7, even if it means career suicide.  They need to do something comparable to what British Petroleum did when it live-streamed the video images of crude gushing from the broken pipe at Deep Horizon.  The public demands and deserves real-time radiation readings and status reports.  Longer term, the companies need to open all the other plants to similar levels of scrutiny and act quickly, decisively and publicly if there’s any doubt that something might be amiss.

An industry with a good reputation could have weathered this crisis because the people and the press would have a great deal of forgiveness, given the unprecedented severity of the earthquake and tsunami.  Tepco won’t get any forgiveness, however, because it hasn’t t earned it – and your company or organization won’t either if you’re playing Tepco’s game.

BP and PR

As PR pros, of course we’ve been thinking a lot about the demise of the Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing performances by BP, the administration and everyone else who’s trying to make a point out of the mess.

We like the fact that BP is letting us watch the crude gush out 24/7 (today we’re watching the Remotely Operated Vehicle) and we think its dedicated website is an example of state-of-the-art transparency, but we certainly don’t think much of a CEO who says he wants to “get his life back” after an environmental disaster of this magnitude.  His subsequent apology, like all apologies following gaffes of this magnitude, was inadequate.

We think the president should have visited the Gulf Coast over the Memorial Day weekend, so he could have spent a lot of time talking to people who are trying to stop the gush, and the people whose livelihoods are threatened by it.

And, of course, we’re appalled that knee-jerk environmentalist nay-saying is holding up needed efforts to protect the environment, like Gov. Bobby Jindall’s proposal to build off-shore berms.  Cynics among us might even think for a moment that they’re trying to make the disaster get worse so they can use it to leverage future regulatory campaigns.  But of course, that’s just from the cynics among us …

What we find most interesting is the media’s failure to put the disaster – bad as it is – in perspective.  Our friends at Briscoe Ivester & Bazel recently did just that:

The blowout at Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico has now surpassed, in volume of oil spilled into the marine environment, the grounding and rupturing 21 years ago of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. So reported the Wall Street Journal and other news services May 28. The nation’s press has run to its morgues to exhume accounts of the Valdez grounding and spill. Forgotten, though, is a much larger spill … Mexico’s Ixtoc I. Ixtoc I was, like Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig moored in the Gulf of Mexico, in that case about 600 miles south of the Texas coastline. It exploded June 3, 1979 for reasons similar to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Ixtoc spilled 10 to 30 thousand barrels of oil a day into the Gulf until relief wells permitted the capping of the broken well almost 10 months later. More than five million barrels of oil spewed from the Ixtoc’s broken wellhead into the Gulf during those months. That amount was 20 times the oil spilled in the Valdez incident.

We hope Deepwater Horizon is capped long before it reaches anything even close to the magnitude of the Ixtoc I spill.  That said, when was the last time you read something about the lasting environmental impacts of Ixtoc I?  Have you ever read anything on the subject?  Well, we have. Here’s the final report prepared by the Feds after thoroughly studying the impact of the 11,000 metric tons of Ixtoc I (and Burmah Agate, another spill) oil that hit the Texas coast. The conclusion:

Petroleum residues attributable to the IXTOC and BURMAH AGATE spills were not identified in the surficial sediments of the study area. Analyses of several water column samples did indicate the presence of IXTOC oil in suspended sedimentary material. Shrimp tissue analysis results identified the presence of petroleum in chronic low levels, but only one sample was linked to IXTOC residues.

No direct links, based on fluctuations in benthic community parameters (abundance and diversity) identified in a comparison of 1976-1977 data with 1980 (post-spill) data, could be made with the IXTOC and/or BURMAH AGATE, spills.

In other words, despite all the hue and cry, all the hand-wringing, and all the condemnation of fossil fuel dependency, the long-term effects of a spill 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill led to nothing more than life as usual with marine creatures and those of us who like to eat them from time to time.  (It took us about 23 seconds to find the federal study, by the way.)

Facts do have a funny way of overpowering perceptions, don’t they?  Unfortunately, facts can get as lost as a clump of crude in a sea of emotions.