Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check

26 March 2009


Japan’s lesson for a tougher kind of PR

If we want a glimpse of where PR might go over the next ten years, we should examine Japan. The world’s second-largest economy’s property bubble burst 20 years ago. Since then deflation, recession and reality have broken the country’s commitment to consensus building, as Leo Lewis argues in “Japan’s harsh new reality” in today’s Times.

Lewis opines:

The supposed great tenets of the Japanese way of business – cosy relationships with customers, consensus-based decision-making and the social kudos of protecting jobs – have been exposed for what they always were: conceits that would never survive a hideous economic crunch.

Lewis highlights how reality has been a tough teacher in Japan:

“…suddenly, a good number of Japanese companies do not look benign and paternal but brutal and pragmatic. They are exploiting labour laws and sacking vast armies of temporary staff taken on in favour of permanent employees. They are terminating contracts with suppliers and reshuffling managements with an aggressiveness that nobody foresaw.

Lewis adds that a psychological transformation has taken place among Japanese companies. They now feel more ideologically capitalist than their battered brothers in the West.

Let’s get this straight: in reality hard times make people appreciate the realities of capitalism. As President Obama said yesterday: we’d better stop knocking the get-up-and-go of greedy bankers. We’ll be out of this hole when they rediscover it.

The lesson is surely that companies will be quite brutal as they fight for survival, which is their first duty. They want – they have – to be around to fight another day. Altruistic self-sacrifice is for heroes not firms.

Is our PR industry ready for such a transformation in capitalistic practice? Well, the language of Mutual Social Responsibility, stakeholder engagement, aligning stakeholder values, corporate social responsibility and even word-of-mouth advocacy comes from another age to the one we are entering.

As I have argued before, the future is going to see more different – and angry – messages flying around. Our clients are going to be fighting harder for much more differentiated positions which are sharper-edged. The arguments will be fiercer, more aggressive, less obvious.

The reality check is on. Frankness, honesty, robust communication rather than fluff, flannel and puff are what’s called for in future from communicators.

These were issues I took up in my recent WSJ Editorial & Opinions piece, which those who missed it can read here.

6 responses to “Japan’s lesson for a tougher kind of PR”

  1. Tim Pendry says:

    Well said – but it could be argued that the whole language of CSR etcet was designed to lull the wider population into thinking that capitalism was something that it wasn’t: essentially benign rather than just merely an effective but often cruel means of production and distribution.

    Capitalism may now revert to “frankness, honesty, robust communication rather than fluff, flannel and puff” but so will its more intelligent critics who will no longer be sidelined by all that puffy nonsense spouted from PR Departments and backed by so-called centre-left Governments.

    This suggests that we will be seeing a new age of straight down-the-line class war propaganda centred on persuading people about their own self interest concerning their job and wealth prospects and directing where votes must go if the system is to be protected or abolished.

    What a relief!

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    The one thing we won’t see in this recession is a return to class war politics. There’s no support for it in any section of society.

    As for the worst excesses of CSR advocacy, if it came from anywhere it was from the rump of the old left, which had given up on achieving socialism.

    I hope to cover the issue of modern protest in the near future. Perhaps next week following the anti-G20 demonstrations in London.

  3. Heather Yaxley says:

    Whilst I think you are undoubtedly right that we will see a new aggressiveness in PR and the organisations for whom it is communicating, I don’t believe this is a sustainable position.

    Of course, survival is essential for any organisation, but being brutal and disregardng those on whom success depends is not a viable strategy.

    We need the business of business to be business as Friedman said but this means genuine social responsibility – with corporations recognising they need to play a role in society, but do not have a right to do whatever they want.

    We don’t need fluffy, sleight of hand CSR initiatives, but neither do we need a return to the equivalent of sticking children up chimneys.

    The role of PR must be that of a real “boundary-spanner” able to communicate the organisation’s position, clearly and effectively – but also to be a listener and capable of honesty internally by advising management when they are wrong and need to recognise responsibilities to constituents – on whom their success depends.

    That’s enlightened self-interest not altruism – and a recognition that survival isn’t just for today or tomorrow, but for the long-term too.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I agree that the death of the consensus approach to management should not become a licence for corporate bad behaviour.

    I wrote up how toughness and empathy might be positioned by firms, politicians and their PRs here and here:

  5. […] I highlighted in an earlier post how Japan’s long-term recession has resulted in a more robust confrontational PR environment that might well resemble the one we are heading toward. […]

  6. […] I’ve pointed out before how in Japan a long period of deflation, recession and reality broke the country’s commitment to consensus building. Japan has actually become more enthusiastically capitalistic than ever as it seeks ways to reboot its economy. However, The Economist reports that the public (in this context Europe and America) does yet see the future the same way Japan does: “America, supposedly the land of profit maximisation über alles, scored only 56%, and Britain 43%. Less surprisingly, Friedman’s views drew little support in stakeholder-friendly Germany, Italy and Spain, at 35%, 33% and 30%, respectively—ie, less support for profit maximisation than in China, whose nonetheless relatively low score suggests that its public embrace of red-blooded capitalism still has some way to go.” “Edelman found, there are very high levels of support for the view that firms should be willing to sacrifice some profits to meet their commitments to their various stakeholders. The percentages are startling—91% in Germany, 89% in Britain, Ireland and China. America is only slightly further behind. Even in those countries with the lowest support for this particular view—Brazil, Japan and the United Arab Emirates—there was still a majority who agreed with it.” […]