Communication Take-Aways: Learning From The Crisis in Japan

If they could rewind to the beginning of the crisis in Japan, what different decisions might Japan’s leaders make about how they communicated? What can they do differently as the crisis continues to unfold? What communication lessons can be learned by all of us for the future?

The triple devastation of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis are beyond tragic. To make matters worse, the Japanese people – along with nuclear experts and worldwide audiences — lost trust that the Japanese leaders were sharing an honest assessment of the risk to their citizens’ health.

Initially Japan recommended limited evacuations near the failing nuclear power plants, but the U.S. urged Americans to evacuate from distances beyond Japan’s danger zone. Over the past two days as there was a sense that the Japanese government was finally issuing warnings about the level of radiation in the drinking water as a risk for babies, the leaders then declared the water safe enough. The radiation levels are all elevated, but the question remains by how much. People are helpless as we listen to numbers we don’t understand and wonder how much radiation really is too much? As one Japanese mother said, “I worry that ten years from now they’ll tell me that my baby and I were poisoned by contaminated water.”  She was afraid that her government wasn’t sharing the full story about known dangers with her – not the more forgivable possibility that scientific discoveries in the future would reveal unknown dangers.

After hedging, delayed communication, and false assurances by Japanese leaders when the stakes were highest, when trust was most important, trusting became impossible.

Japanese citizens and the world watching understood why rescues were delayed by the sheer lack of infrastructure throughout the hardest hit areas.  That was beyond anyone’s control. Communicating about real dangers is within human control, however.  And with the very real uncertainty about the crisis unfolding, shouldn’t the leaders err on the side of caution?

Safety always trumps all else and Japanese leaders needed to do a better job of clearly and honestly communicating. The ultimate outcome of that failed communication will be seen, as that mother warned, as we watch the health of Japan’s citizens years from now.

So, with hindsight, what could Japan have done differently? What can Japan’s leaders do differently moving forward? What will others do differently the next time?

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