Japan Inc starts to look to strategic communications

Apr 23, 2018
Greater interest in field reflects efforts to open Japanese businesses’ doors to the world

Over the last couple of years, we’ve observed a rise in businesses seeking strategic communications support in Japan. In light of the stream of scandals that have plagued Japan Inc, this is hardly surprising. Whether this will be a sustained trend or just a momentary spike remains to be seen – although we suspect it’s the former.

This upward curve seems to be rooted in Japan’s continuing efforts to open its doors to the world and build its reputation as an international center for business. A number of Japanese businesses have been bolstering their communications capabilities to help position themselves globally and tell their story in markets outside of Japan.

Meanwhile, corporate governance reform – which sits at the heart of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to transform the Japanese economy – has placed a spotlight on the need for Japanese businesses to improve disclosure, transparency and dialogue with their stakeholder communities.

One of the core aims is to diversify Japanese businesses’ shareholder base and open the country up to the international investor community.

At a recent roundtable dinner discussion, we explored this topic of corporate governance reform and its impact on business demand for strategic communications support. It would be natural to assume that this new emphasis on disclosure, transparency and dialogue will pave the way for strategic communications to play a bigger and more obvious role in Japanese business.

But although there are clear examples of businesses that have embraced the directives of the 2015 Corporate Governance Code – many of which have gained a strategic advantage in doing so – the general consensus among our dinner guests was that there remains a large portion of Japanese businesses that have struggled with some of the communications-orientated features of the reform. Reflecting on Japanese culture, it is easy to understand why: most have not been accustomed to establishing regular, continuing dialogue with the range of stakeholders that the code prescribes.

Nascent profession

Strategic communications remains a nascent profession in Japan. For many organizations, it has tended to be a function into which people rotate from other parts of the business for a couple of years, as opposed to being somewhere an individual builds a career. Moreover, standing out is not something a lot of Japanese businesses (or individuals) actively seek, which means the craft of proactive public relations and communications is somewhat constrained.

It is because of these factors that the communications talent pool in Japan is a shallow one and, as we found at our dinner discussion, many businesses find it challenging to identify and hire talent in this field. In our own experience, ready-made communicators can be hard to find in Japan, so a certain deal of creativity can be required to unearth individuals with transferrable skill-sets.

For those businesses that have been bold in their adoption of the corporate governance reforms, it may be starting to facilitate better access to the international stage. Takeda Pharmaceutical Company has made notable steps in this regard; it was particularly bold in the transparency it showed in communicating its recent board appointments. Rather than wait to see whether industry press would scrutinize its decisions, the firm pre-emptively penned an open letter explaining its choices.

This proactive adoption of the principles underlying the corporate governance code has set Takeda apart from other businesses in Japan. In an environment where it remains a relatively small player compared with the pharmaceutical giants, and where Japan Inc has lost some of its shine, this approach could play a key role in drawing the international investor community to the company.

If businesses like Takeda start to benefit from adopting this proactive, transparent style of communications, we may see more follow suit. This, we hope, will form part of a broader, long-term trend that sees increased investment from Japanese businesses in the function of strategic communications.

Sarah Crawshaw is managing director for Asia-Pacific at Taylor Bennett Heyman

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