By the time Sony Playstation chief Kazuo Hirai finally emerged to issue an abashed apology, almost two weeks after hackers stole personal data from some 77 million users of the online service, a familiar media narrative had begun to take hold.

For observers who followed Toyota’s tentative crisis response last year, Sony’s fumbling steps to address the full scale of its issues struck a chord. Throw in the criticism heaped on TEPCO’s diffident communications efforts in the aftermath of its nuclear plant meltdown, and the story became an easy one to write: Japanese companies, perhaps the nation itself, are unprepared for the radical levels of transparency that are required in the modern public relations era.

The charges may sound jingoistic. After all, they overlook the recent failings of Western companies such as BP and Facebook. To better understand the situation, The Holmes Report canvassed a panel of Japan PR experts for their views, asking a range of questions around a simple theme: Does Japan have a PR problem?

The panel
Deborah Hayden - Managing partner, Kreab Gavin Anderson Japan
David Kilburn - Veteran Japan analyst and commentator
Akihiko Kubo - MD, Weber Shandwick Japan
German Saa - Manager, Kyodo PR

1. Are Japanese companies suffering from an outdated PR mindset?

Kubo: “I think that criticisms of Japan’s ability to communicate globally are probably fair and reasonably accurate.”

Saa: “I am not surprised that the western media would be running with that view that since as of late, everything that Japan says or does it's considered behind the times. I do agree that Toyota's, Tepco's, and now Sony's problems have highlighted the fact that Japanese companies are slow to react to global scrutiny of their operations but PR is a very, very small component of the entire scope of difficulties these major corporations are facing as the world changes at a blinding pace all around them.”

Kilburn: “If effective crisis management needs leadership, crisp decisions, and clear lines of authority even the best prepared Japanese organisation is likely to deliver the opposite at least as the first response.”

Hayden: “I actually agree with that. I’m really hoping that Japan will take a long hard look and try and focus on strategic communications.”

2. From a PR perspective, what are they doing wrong?

Kubo: “One of the strongest traits of Japanese culture is that silence is valued more highly than public expressions of individual thoughts and opinions. It is also a country where the education system focuses too intently on learning by receiving. Whether these traits and methods are right for Japan domestically is one question, but there’s no doubt that they are fundamentally different to what happens in Western countries. They ensure that Japan is a strong receiver of information, but are simultaneously the root causes of Japan’s persistent inability to communicate effectively on the world stage.”

Saa: “In Toyota's and Tepco's cases most of the necessary information was either unknown, hidden or simply slowly released in little pieces. These companies had (still have?) serious internal communications problems where top management does not have a clear grasp of what is going on at the lower levels or on the front lines where products get made or services are offered.”

Kilburn: “Japanese companies like to bury bad news, a preference that is not unique to Japan. However, to some extent traditional media collude to enable this practice in deference to those authorities that control access to news and information. In doing so, companies are blind to the empowerment the internet has brought to ordinary people who may be directly affected by events or concerned about the response.”

Kubo: “Regarding the Sony, Toyota and Tepco cases you mentioned, they were all communication litmus tests that the companies involved failed. As soon as they were thrust into the global spotlight, they needed to do much better to satisfy the world’s expectations for clear, prompt and direct communication. Two of Japan’s strongest country brand strengths – safety and quality - have been eroded, as a consequence of Fukushima, but poor communications made the situation worse rather than making it better.”

3. Why are PR agencies apparently unable to effectively influence their clients to improve?

Saa: “PR here in Japan (or in any market) only works when the client is completely honest with the agency or its own PR staff. We try to help with the information we have available, thus if we don't have all the facts, our effectiveness is seriously compromised. If we do not have reliable information to work from senior management, how can we defend clients or clarify the situation in a positive light?”

Kubo: “Under the status quo, local PR agencies dominate the Japanese market, but they lack the cultural awareness, experience and networks to communicate effectively for their clients on a global scale. Ironically, the global communication agencies that are best equipped to help Japan go global are under-utilised and under-represented in Japan.”

Hayden: “It’s the basics. Agencies here often function only to deliver information.”

4. Is there any evidence that the recent string of crises will herald change for the better?

Kilburn: “I don't think there is any evidence of change, the same sorry tale is replayed with a different cast each time crisis strikes. While individual companies may have learnt a great deal from disasters that beset them, there are no signs that this has led to widespread changes in crisis preparedness and training across Japanese business. The general attitude of most seems to be ‘it couldn't happen here. We are too well organised’.”

Kubo: “As the population greys, and local demand for many of Japan’s product and services slows down, local companies will be forced to look at new markets for growth. So there is a clear understanding here that Japan will need to become better at business globally, and this presents a communication challenge that the country will have no choice but to meet head on. Improvement will be absolutely vital, and fundamental changes will be needed.”

Hayden: “I’m hopeful the criticism that Japan has come under will help them in terms of how they deliver their messages, how they communicate, and when they communicate. A lot of the spokespeople are not being given the authority to actually speak - they can answer questions but only according to an authorised script. Is it time to rethink that? Twitter particularly came into its own during the earthquake. It was something that Japanese people turned to, and they started to follow trusted sources rather than the massive hysteria.”