How to communicate in a disaster

Companies faced with a crisis must look beyond conservative communication strategies to connect with everyone affected, David Bowen says.

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How important is your website in an emergency? The Japanese earthquake has jolted me into looking at this again, though it is something I spent much of last year pondering. BP’s online response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster should make every company rethink the role of its online presence; and quite possibly of its press office, too.
I have looked at the websites of the 10 biggest Japanese companies in the FT Global 500 to see how they have been used in the aftermath of the disaster. The answer is, not much. Toyota’s global home page has a message from the president, in both Japanese and English versions. He offers his prayers to all those who lost their lives and says “we will do out utmost toward the realisation of recovery”. NTT DoCoMo, Nintendo and Mitsubishi Corporation have something similar. They, as well as Honda, Nissan, NTT and Canon, have links to press releases saying how they have been affected, though none is prominent. The two banks, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial, have nothing.
What does this say? Mainly that Japanese companies do not regard websites as mainstream communication channels. The Toyota chairman’s statement is similar to one a year ago, when the group’s cars were hit by a wave of recalls. That was highly subdued compared with what its other country sites (for example, the US one, were doing. As for the press releases, they are aimed presumably at the press. So the sites are not being used as tools to talk directly to people who might be affected.

Roles for the website

Had the tsunami caused devastation in the US, there would have been a very different reaction. BP got many things disastrously wrong in the Gulf of Mexico last year, but one thing it managed well was its online response.
Its website had two jobs: managing the group’s reputation and providing practical help.
There was a limit to what the site could do for BP’s reputation. Television was far more important and that was poorly handled. What the company could do online was to be as open as possible and to show that it understood the gravity of the situation. Clearing its home page of all other content was an effective (and unprecedented) start.
The most painful sign of openness was a video feed of the oil leak at the bottom of the sea. But throughout the crisis, was telling the story in a neutral and apparently truthful way. The chief executive’s British accent did not play well on US television. I heard no criticism of the tone of voice on the site, which seemed pretty clear (lesson: good written English is much the same the world over).

A help in times of crisis

Japanese companies do not have the reputation management need; and as long as they handle the recovery as well as they can, they will not. But the second job – providing practical information and advice – is where they could learn useful lessons.
BP has long had a ‘dark site’ ready to launch in a crisis. It was used when the Texas City refinery exploded in 2005 and during hurricane emergencies following that. The site is notably robust and set up to handle queries and channel them to the right place for response. It was launched this time after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank, but not under the BP brand: instead, it was a shared platform with the US government and other companies. I noticed that after a while the group was shifting emphasis away from it, towards and other sites it owned.
These were used to talk directly to people who needed practical advice. There was a claim form in several languages, including Vietnamese, that fishermen could use. The Wildlife page had (and has) a section on what to do if you spotted an oiled bird. Four state-specific sites were set up with information on the clean up, claims, seafood safety and the like. Social media backed the sites up – YouTube videos were particularly powerful, with, for example, a clear explanation of how to make a claim. There were also plenty of invitations to ask questions.
It was and is impressive. Whether or not it made any difference to the group’s reputation, BP’s online effort must have brought significant relief to many people.

Traditional tactics fall short

Why is it that reactions in Japan and the US are so different? According to Internet World Stats, a higher percentage of Japanese use the internet than Americans (78 per cent against 77 per cent). They are more biased to mobile information, but the real reason for the difference must lie in attitudes within the companies. The FT Bowen Craggs Index of corporate web effectiveness shows that not one Japanese company is in the top half of the list. If there is no senior management acknowledgement that the web is important, the website will not be good. We have much evidence for that.
Behind that is an ultra-conservative view of communications – and this is where the problem goes way beyond Japan. When a crisis (real or reputation) hits, the traditional reaction is to talk to journalists – get the story into newspapers and other mainstream media, and the communications job is done. Press officers still need to do that, but they also need to talk to bloggers, tweeters and anyone who is affected – the Vietnamese fishermen, the families in Toyota City. In other words, companies cannot, must not, rely on traditional media as the sole intermediary – they must talk directly to everyone and anyone. The website and social media are the obvious channels for doing that. Why not use them?

First published 23 March, 2011
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