Wednesday, March 23, 2011

PR Fallout From Japan - An Extreme Case of Crisis Management

    The tragic chain events in Japan has opened up a Pandora's box of public relations troubles.  Is Japan's government telling victims what they need to know?  Is there too much confusion?  Is there a crisis management plan? Or are Japan's leaders simply overwhelmed by the multiple disasters?  Realistically, It's hard to know what's happening in the midst of chaos.  Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has emerged as a prominent spokesperson.  His name is a global trending topic on Twitter.  But some critics also question whether Edano is telling the truth.  I've seen some interviews with Japanese quake/tsunami/nuclear victims who don't know whether to trust what the government is telling them.  What could Japan do better?  I think, given the scope of the disaster, this remains an open question.

     The Nuclear issue has to rank as the greatest challenge in terms of PR.  Every day there's a new report about radiation spikes.  Increased radiation levels in spinach, milk and tap water has a lot of Japanese people worried.  A report in the Christian Science Monitor indicates that public support for nuclear power has fallen sharply.  A Gallup Poll taken last March showed that 62% of Americans supported nuclear energy.  Today, a USA Today/Gallup survey shows that support dropping to 44%.

     Early on, Japan recommended evacuations for residents living within a 12 mile radius of the damaged reactors.  But at the same time U.S. officials were warning Americans living within 50-miles to move.  Is the U.S. being more cautious or is Japan downplaying the dangers- perhaps to avoid sparking mass hysteria?

     News outlets are running lots of stories questioning the safety of nuclear plants in the United States.  What if it happened here?  I'm sure it's no coincidence that The Today Show was given an "unprecedented" look inside a nuclear plant in Louisiana.  Operators told The Today Show their plant was extremely safe.  At the end of the story, reporter Tom Costello pointed out that his radiation monitor registered a zero- no radiation exposure despite his being taken to the area where spent nuclear rods are stored.  Balance that against a new Associated Press report-  revealing there are nearly 72,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste in the United States.  And there is no plan to store that waste permanently.  We're told nuclear waste can remain dangerous for years- tens of thousands of years.

     As the tragedy in Japan unfolds the nuclear industry may have to grapple with even more negative news reports. There are sure to be renewed calls for greater scrutiny, better safety measures- and even the end of nuclear power.  Obviously, the industry is working hard to give reporters its side of the story.  But I'm not sure if I see a "Crisis Management" plan at work.  If American nuclear plants are safer than plants in Japan- that could be the focus of a major PR campaign.  The nuclear industry may also need to take concrete action.  It may be time to come up with a plan to dispose of all that radioactive waste.  If plants can be made safer- perhaps now is a good time to address the issue.  I think the people in charge of the nuclear energy  industry need to be proactive.  If U.S. plants are safe, those executives need to help Americans understand we are not facing unnecessary- and unknown- risks.  It's clear that everyone in Japan knows the risks are very real indeed.

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