Thursday, March 24, 2011

Crisis Communications Lessons from the Japanese Disaster

It's been nearly two weeks since Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Large crises are good labs for lessons and this one is no exception. Despite a far different culture than the US, there are some factors common to all large organizational crises that are worth taking note of.

People want transparency even when the news is bad. The company that owns the nuclear power plants, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been accused of withholding information and downplaying the severity of crisis. It got so bad, a senior government official asked a TEPCO leader, "What in the world is going on?" The government then effectively put TEPCO under its control late last week. Now the government is faced with the same challenges (but doing much better at communicating than TEPCO).

Best advice: Play it straight. Don't judge facts bad or good. Deliver facts in context quickly and completely. Then tell people your plan of action to address the challenges you (and in some cases they) face. When people don't believe you are telling them everything, they don't trust
anything you say.

Demand for information in a crisis always exceeds supply. Solid information is always hard to come by in a crisis, even for those working it. People always think those at the center of a crisis know more than they usually do. This feeds a public perception that those involved are withholding critical news and people default to thinking the worst.

Best advice: Be ready to explain why you don't have certain information and keep working to fill the information gaps. Also, have a thick skin. Realize that people's desire for information is human nature. Don't turn the need for more information into anger by ignoring people's legitimate desires to know as much as possible.

In a crisis response, the public believes more people and material is better (even when it’s not going to solve the problem). The US Pacific Fleet Facebook page received a question about why the Navy hasn't yet sent its West Coast-based hospital ship USNS Mercy to Japan to provide medical care. The simple answer was that the Government of Japan has not requested the Mercy and the US Navy has nearly 20 ships off Japan's coast with ample medical facilities. Plus, Japan is very well developed and well equipped to provide medical care to its citizens. That wasn't good enough for the questioner. He got testier and testier with the Pacific Fleet folks demanding to know why the Navy hasn't moved the ship to Hawaii so it can be closer “just in case.”

Best advice: Acknowledge the concern reflected in the question, in this case a concern for people's health and safety, and talk about how your actions address those concerns. Talk about what capabilities you are using instead of the capabilities you are not using. Be prepared to tell that story again and again. The Pacific Fleet staffer answered all the questions respectfully and explained as best he or she could. 

Media will cover your crisis live if they can. NHK-TV had a helicopter in the air and they broadcast live pictures of the wiping out cities and villages. Other news outlets picked up the
NHK feed and the world witnessed the disaster as it happened.

Best advice: Streamline bureaucracy and empower your people to communicate fast. If you have a crisis plan that provides for a one- or two-hour deadline for a first news release, revise your plan because one-hour is too long. Give your people the training they need to communicate in real time.

Crises may be unpredictable, but people's reactions to them remain fairly constant. Don't let the crisis get the better of you because you focus on the event instead of the people hurting because of it.

Bill Salvin


  1. This is a great overview of the crisis in Japan - thanks for your insights. During a training session this week I highlighted some of these same observations and also inlcuded the 'push the limits for your worse case scenario".

    Do we think these Emergency Managers ever prepared for a disaster of this scale? Waves this high and damage this extensive? They live in an earthquake zone on a fault line - should they have?

    We conducted an emergency drill at our site this week and when reviewing the scenario we included three fatalities and social media reporting. It stimulated great dialogue in the EOC and forced the team to walk through the notification of next of kin process etc, something we hope to never have to do, but must be prepared to do. For a group of engineers and scientists this was really an interesting exercise.

    Emergency drills need to push our thought process and make us think of the "what ifs?" Drills that stick to safe scenarios won't prepare a team for the realities of what they could face in a real crisis or disaster.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Shawna. Should they have been prepared for a disaster of this scale? Yes. There have been a number of reports that a earthquake and tsunami of similar size struck the same area in the year 869. It's not surprising that fact didn't come to light until after the March 11 quake. People have great confidence in their ability to predict and control events. Except they tend to overestimate their ability and underestimate things they can't control. It's the "that would never happen" syndrome. Communicators are at their best when they roll out a scenario that pushes both the capabilities of the organization and the imagination of its people.