By Akemi Ichise
The most important aspect of public relations activities is ethics, or the principle of “fairness, accuracy, and transparency,” according to the Public Relations Society of Japan (PRSJ). As a former director and active member of the association, I believe all PR practitioners, both in Japan and abroad, generally know this principle and bear this in mind. However, the reality is there is no end to the number of cases that contradict this principle.
One such case has recently sparked debate in Japan. It occurred during a press conference by a talent agency on Oct. 2, 2023, when the agency apologized amid a sexual harassment scandal involving the agency’s former president (now deceased). The news was not just covered locally but also global media outlets, such as the BBC. This scandal shook the entertainment industry in Japan.
While there was a lot of debate about the content of the press conference, as well as its organizers’ attitude and methods, the actual press conference also included an incident that doubled the anger of the reporters and the audience who learned about it.
It all started when a broadcast reporter in attendance noticed a management staff member in charge of the press conference had a document identifying specific reporters to be excluded during the question-and-answer session, a detail that was inadvertently visible to the attending media. This list included the reporters’ photos and the names to avoid calling on during the press conference.
In response to this incident, various commentators (including commenters on video news clips) noted this tactic of selecting reporters at a press conference is not new in Japan. This approach of intentionally preventing specific journalists from asking their questions has been observed in multiple instances at press conferences related to the Japanese government.
In my opinion, brands and their PR consultants should strive to exercise fairness as a professional courtesy to any journalist who attends a press conference. Our advice to clients is always to field questions equitably and authentically, and we will work with their spokespeople to make all necessary preparations so they can provide credible and considered responses.
When brands go through periods of crisis, demonstrating transparency is the most important and essential stance. Once a crisis has occurred, it is understandably very difficult to maintain trust among audiences and stakeholders – but recovering and rebuilding trust is possible for brands and their leaders when they are not afraid to engage in transparent and honest stakeholder communications. This conveys their commitment to repairing the wrongs that led to a crisis in the first place, and it points their way forward toward conquering the challenges that arose.
By choosing to ignore these principles, the organizers of this apology press conference made the situation worse. Given the nature of this press conference, media attendees and audience members perceived this incident as a negative reflection of the talent agency’s attitude. It revealed the talent agency’s stance not just on the press conference itself, but also a potentially inauthentic position on the underlying issue for which the talent agency was meant to apologize.
In response to the fallout from the blocklist incident, the talent agency responded by announcing on its website that a U.S.-based consulting firm (not a PR company) hired for the press conference created the blocklist. The talent agency also stated that it had objected to the use of the blocklist. This was corroborated by the consulting firm in a comment stating the talent agency had not been involved in the use of the blocklist, which had been in fact created to facilitate the press conference smoothly given the limited time given to use the venue.
This incident was initially explained by the talent agency as having been carried out by a “foreign-affiliated PR company” and was widely reported as a “foreign-affiliated consulting firm (based in the U.S.)” On top of the talent agency’s attempt to shift the responsibility, this response also created further concerns among Japanese communications professionals. Specifically, that this situation could potentially impact local perceptions of U.S.-based consulting and communications firms in general – including Allison. PRSJ took the issue seriously and has published a statement on its website suggesting it could violate the principles of fairness, accuracy and transparency.
In the statement, PRSJ notes the following provisions in the second paragraph of the association’s Code of Ethics: “We understand the role of the media in society, respect freedom of speech and the press, conduct our public relations activities fairly and honestly, disclose facts accurately, suitably, and appropriately to domestic and foreign stakeholders, and enhance transparency.”
I believe this stance communicated by PRSJ is not only for Japanese PR practitioners, but for all of those who work for public relations in the world to keep in mind. Let’s take this opportunity to reflect and reconsider our commitment to ethics and authenticity in the course of our daily work.