PR And The Fukushima Disaster: Lessons Learned

PR And The Fukushima Disaster:
Lessons Learned

James Woewoda is the founder and president of Woewoda Communications

In my last post I discussed Who Uses Public Relations?

Today I am going to discuss the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster of 2011

                                         The Event

On March 11, 2011 the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster occurred. For those unfamiliar with the event, three out of four nuclear plants were destroyed in an earthquake and tsunami. The fourth one had been so badly damaged that the fear was, if there was another earthquake of a seven or above that, that building would collapse and the subsequent radioactive fallout would increase. 

The event caused not only massive environmental damage, but was a major health risk to those living near the facility and to those working on the premises. 

The PR Connection

From a PR perspective, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster was a crisis management and PR catastrophe. For all those involved; the government, the regulators and the company, the disaster was a lesson on "how not to respond to a tragic event."

From a PR and management viewpoint there seems to be at least 4 lessons that can be learned from this  event. 

Lessons Learned

#1) Those In Charge Must Face Reality: Denial was a big part leading up to this event. 

The Fukushima nuclear power plant with its four reactors was not only build on a major fault line, but it was also built close to the ocean in a low lying area. Historically, the area was prone to seismic activity. In addition, historical records showed that every 75 to 100 years the area was struck by a major tsunami. 

Even armed with this historical knowledge, management as well as government turned a "blind eye" to the probability of either one or both events occurring; the plant was built. 

With the plant in full operation government officials, regulatory personnel and management continued to look the other way and refused to believe that one or both events could occur. 

     Lesson #1 - Accept Reality

#2) Those In Charge Must Look For Answers And Not Seek Control: When it came to the Fukushima experience, in theory at least, there were to be 3 entities working together to solve any crisis that were to arise ; the government, the company and the regulators. In the event of a crisis, the company was to report their findings to the regulators who in turn would report to the government. 

This two way communication flow was to act as a catalyst. In theory, the regulator would act as the middleman between the government and the company relaying information and solutions. 

However, once the disaster hit, this all changed; the theory collapsed. 

Once the crisis hit, the day to day functions of crisis management ended up being consolidated in the Prime Minister's Office, with the Prime Minister being the central figure in the decision making process.,an unfortunate outcome that would only compound the problem and create more chaos -  the PM's office was not structured or its employees trained to handle this type of crisis.  

Because events on the ground were changing so rapidly, and because the situation was fluid, and chaotic (reactor meltdowns, radiation being emitted into the atmosphere etc,) the information flow from ground zero to the PM's office was not only overwhelming, but it was confusing in that it was based on truths, half truths, speculations, and 3rd party information - again the PM's office was incapable to discern between information that was true versus information that was not true. 

To add to this complexity, Japanese culture and its obedience to authority meant that no one, including those working side by side with the PM (within the office), or those working for the company at ground zero, would question the crisis management structure that was now in place - regardless of how poorly it functioned. 

With the emphasis more on "control" than on "answers and solutions" a bad situation became worst. For example, when the PM showed up at ground zero, five days after the reactors were damaged, there were still more questions than answers - yes, his office had control, but confusion still reigned at ground zero. 

     Lesson #2 - Focus On Getting Answers, Not On Control

#3) Those In Charge Must Prevent Panic And Maintain Credibility:  After the event occurred neither the company nor the government held regular news conferences or provided regular updates. The information that they did provide were in the form of "public notices" that occurred "randomly" as the situation unfolded - a poorly structured form of communication that was a direct result of a poorly structured crisis management system that did not work. 

This development only added to the public's confusion, anxiety and growing skepticism about their government and the company's ability to handle the crisis. Questions started to arise "What is the government hiding from us? Why aren't they telling us the truth?"

      Lesson #3 - Hold Regular News Conferences To Keep Those Affected Up To Date.

#4) Practice For Disasters: In this experience the government, the regulator and the company refused to believe that a disaster of this magnitude was possible. As a result, each entity was unprepared to handle this type of crisis internally, or in collaboration with one other.  As a result, when the disaster struck, the management theory that was to take over collapsed due to the lack of practical (and coordinated) training between departments and organizations. 

     Lesson #4 - Assume The Worst Case Scenario... And Practice, Practice, Practice


Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Lessons In Leadership
Fukushima: Key Points In Report
Fukushima Nuclear Accident: What Happened?


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