Improving Crisis Communications
Journalism alumnus and Advertising professor advise TEPCO executives in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis
Since a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, the company has faced an international public relations crisis. The plant has suffered several explosions, releasing radiation and making the surrounding area uninhabitable. This fall, the plant faced more criticism -- this time for the accumulation of radioactive coolant water.
In addition to their emergency response, TEPCO has been criticized for its communications following the tragedy.
With the goal of improving how the company communicates with people around the world, Journalism alumnus Jeff Hunt and Advertising Professor John Murphy have been advising TEPCO on the art and science of crisis communication.
In the process, they are showing that good crisis communication is not just about deflecting criticism, but about keeping the public prepared, safe and informed to guide public policies surrounding nuclear power.
In late October, Hunt and Murphy led a series of workshops for visiting TEPCO executives on content creation, social media, public relations metrics and crisis communications. As part of the workshops, the group visited the Dell Social Media Listening Command Center and the Lower Colorado River Authority.
TEPCO executives also are working with University of Texas System Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Dale Klein, who chairs TEPCO's Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee. The committee is investigating the causes of the 2011 Fukushima crisis to make nuclear power safer. As committee chair, Klein had recommended that TEPCO consult Hunt and Murphy on communications.
Klein said he hopes the visit helped TEPCO executives understand the foundation of effective corporate communication, as well as current communications technologies.
"One challenge tech companies face is wanting to know everything before saying anything," Klein said. "In today's environment, you can't do that with emails and Twitter. And if you don't change the way you communicate, you're going to give the perception of covering things up."
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, executive vice president of TEPCO, said the training has helped executives learn how to communicate on a global scale, providing context.
"The U.S. is concerned with the problems of leaks and radiation," Yamaguchi said. "We haven't been able to effectively communicate what's going on, and people might think we're incapable. It's a global issue and we have to manage this globally."
For instance, if the company detects cesium in the sea, Yamaguchi said they should explain what that means to a global audience with an emphasis on the health, safety and well-being of plant workers, the surrounding community and the global population.
"We're learning how important it is to visually explain things," Yamaguchi said. "They [the global audience] can't see what's going on, so we need to provide pictures and good visuals, animations. For instance, we're planning to move the spent fuel from [reactor] unit four to a safe place. That will be happening in November. He [Hunt] has advised us to make an animation of the work that we’re planning."
Hunt, who also serves as an adjunct professor of public relations, invited executives to his class for a crisis communications simulation based on TEPCO's latest issues. Students were put into the role of communications professionals for TEPCO, and were asked to make decisions in real time based on the facts they were receiving.
Professors asked students to remain aware of the six stages of a crisis:
- Insufficient information
- An escalating flow of events
- Intense scrutiny from the public
- A siege, fight-or-flight mentality
- A tendency to "bunker down" instead of facing the situation
"It's important to know these six stages," Hunt told his students. "At any stage, the temptation is to not communicate. Each one of these stages is an excuse. A minute of paralysis can cost an eternity in terms of communication."
After the class, Hunt said several students remarked that it was one of the most exciting classes they had attended and that they were interested in speaking with TEPCO executives.
Based on the success of TEPCO's visit, Yamaguchi said he might send a couple staff members to Austin for six months so they could further consult professors on TEPCO's U.S. communications.
"This is the perfect example of the role a university can play in solving current challenges," Klein said. "Dealing with such an emotional issue like Fukushima Daiichi, the university can take its knowledge and skills and help students understand corporate communication."
Nick Hundley, (512) 471-7209