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Monday, Aug. 8, 2011

Knowing your audience crucial to winning effective PR results overseas

Companies court failure when attempting to communicate in a cultural void, experts warn

Staff writer

When reaching out to overseas audiences, Japanese companies need to understand what their target audience wants to know instead of just releasing the bare facts, two public relations experts said in a recent series of seminars.

News photo
Shuri Fukunaga

Understanding and addressing the gap between what you say and how your audience will take it is particularly important today because, as foreign media coverage of the March 11 disasters shows, the number of people in leading positions abroad who understand Japan has declined substantially in recent years, the experts said in seminars organized by the Keizai Koho Center last month.

One of the most important points in corporate PR, especially as it concerns people outside of Japan, is to know your audience, said Shuri Fukunaga, managing director and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Japan.

People involved in public relations need to be aware of the potential gap between what they say and how their audience will react — even when they are communicating in the same language, Fukunaga said July 21.

When you talk to people who come from different countries and cultures, the way they will think about you and understand what you say becomes a sensitive issue, she said.

The same point was repeated by Kumi Sato, president of Cosmo Public Relations Corp.

When it comes to food safety and radioactive fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, for example, you need to understand the kinds of fears foreigners have about Japanese food, Sato said at a seminar July 27.

It is not enough just to release data and say the food is safe — you have to know how your target audience will feel about the problem and make sure they feel your products are safe, she said.

Fukunaga stressed that one's messages must be simple and clear, noting that complicated phrases tend to confuse people with diverse value systems.

She cited the example of Akio Morita, the late cofounder of Sony Corp., who often spoke on American TV about the differences between Japanese and U.S. businesses in the 1980s. Morita wasn't necessarily a fluent English speaker, but he excelled in using plain speech to explain what he wanted to say.

News photo
Kumi Sato

In communicating with your target audience, you also need to know about and be able to explain yourself, Fukunaga said. People listened to Morita because he clearly understood how Japanese companies operate, she said.

Fukunaga said one problem with corporate PR today is that the number of "Japan hands" in key government and academic posts worldwide has declined sharply compared with two decades ago.

This was reflected in foreign media coverage of the March 11 earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, she said. People who knew very little about Japan were speaking on foreign TV networks and commenting on the initial phase of the disaster, influencing the way subsequent coverage played out, she said.

That "Japan passing" is rising in pace with the decline in its international presence is becoming evident at such events as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Japan-related sessions attract mostly Japanese audiences, Sato said.

The March 11 disasters focused global media attention on Japan, but little positive news about the country is being reported overseas, she said.

One reason is the negative image being generated by the apparent mishandling of the Fukushima crisis, she said. Another could be the lack of a credible national spokesman, she said.

Despite the West's expanding coverage of Asia and its emerging powers, the number of Japan-based foreign correspondents has dropped, thinning out the ranks of those well-versed in Japanese affairs and resulting in often superficial coverage of Japan, Sato said.

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