Crisis management in Japan: two twists for experts

If your company is involved in a crisis in Japan, you are expected to apologise
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By Dan Underwood

Because the principles of crisis management are universal, companies will often fly in their most experienced crisis communications personnel when something goes wrong outside their home market. But it’s in the local details, not the global principles, that crisis response plans tend to go wrong.

In Japan, there are numerous aspects of crisis response that few crisis experts would recommend in their home territory. Let’s look at two that tend to cause the most friction.

Say you’re sorry!

If your company is involved in a crisis in Japan, you are expected to apologise. In fact, an apology will usually need to be part of your first public statement. Companies unfamiliar with Japan often object strenuously to the idea of saying sorry. Their global comms leaders question why they should apologise when the facts and causes of the situation have not yet been confirmed.

Their legal and insurance advisors are terrified of even hinting at the acceptance of liability at such an early stage in the process—if ever. And others may baulk at the need for an apology in situations where there is nothing concrete to apologise for.

But in Japan an apology is not an acceptance of blame or an official taking of responsibility – it is a matter of form and sincerity. It is part of an implied social contract that requires companies to acknowledge that they are involved in a situation that has brought some degree of confusion or disruption to society.

Apologies in Japan come in many flavours. At one end of the spectrum you have something like the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, when events are beyond the realm of human manipulation. In these situations, the ‘apology’ aspect of a company’s communication will probably combine an empathetic acknowledgement of shared human suffering with an apology for not being able to provide service X or product Y.

Take a bow

At the other end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘apology press conference’, in which a company embroiled in a scandal hosts an event for the explicit purpose of formally and publicly apologising. Each element of these press conferences must be carefully orchestrated so that every message delivered—whether spoken or unspoken—contributes to a consistent, sincere expression of contrition. It will include the mandatory photo opportunity of the executive team bowed in synchronous remorse. This, too, is carefully orchestrated to ensure the appropriate sequence, angle and duration of the team bow.

The thing to remember is that apologising is an art form in Japan, with as much nuance and ritual as a tea ceremony. Any sustained crisis will be accompanied by a sequence of apologies that rise and fall like the tide. If a company handles the crisis skillfully, the tide will come in quickly, reach peak apology, and then ebb to a point where further apology is neither expected nor given. And that means you are back in business.

Field questions forever?

The duration of press conferences is another aspect of crisis management in Japan that invariably meets resistance from people unfamiliar with the culture. Standard operating procedure in most markets is to control the agenda, say what you need to say, and limit exposure to potentially troublesome questions.

Not in Japan.

When a company holds an ‘apology press conference’ here, you can set the agenda and say what you need to say, but when it comes to Q&A, you effectively hand the stopwatch to the attending media. The Q&A session will end when journalists allow it to end, and any executive who leaves the room without the ‘permission’ of the crowd will almost certainly regret it.

The inherent logic is that if a company has broken the social contract through corporate misbehaviour – whether fraud, environmental damage, defective products or poor governance – they have lost the right to dictate the terms of engagement.

Show leadership

Foreign executives are astonished to learn of this unspoken rule, and often resist the idea fiercely. But there is little to fear for a company that is well prepared, sincere and truthful. As in any country, a crisis in Japan will reveal the quality of your leadership. If your apology press conference demonstrates that you have effective leaders who are taking responsibility, you will still get tough questions. But you will walk out on time with your sanity preserved, and the resulting coverage will often be milder than the tone of the questions would have you expect.

If, on the other hand, you appear evasive, uncertain and untruthful, you will deeply regret not eating that sandwich before the conference began. As Robert-François Damiens allegedly said in 1757 when fetched from his prison cell to be tortured to death, ‘The day will be hard.’


Ashton Consulting, based in Tokyo, is the Navigate Response partner in Japan.

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