It is fortunate that I do not have a cat. I would have been arrested for animal cruelty.
But the blame for kicking poor Tama every evening would lie squarely with the penpushers who seem to be in charge of press relations at Japanese companies, ministries, agencies and myriad other organizations.
“Corporate communications” is too often an oxymoron in this country; press officers here seem hell bent on preventing any sort of information escaping from the four walls of the company — even if it is merely confirmation of something that was announced a day previously in a press release.
And it’s not an issue of a language barrier; the vast majority of Japanese companies know their officials are going to have to deal with inquiries from overseas and their press relations people speak excellent English. They probably speak other languages as well, but they have not apparently been schooled in the art of communicating.
To be fair, there are press officers who have gone out of their way to be helpful — to my surprise I have found the Foreign Ministry very cooperative and accessible — but they are vastly outnumbered by the obstructionists.
We have all been there; what is on the face of it an easy story that should only require a couple of phone calls to complete turns into an epic exercise in pulling teeth. The first line of defense is often a secretary who is under orders to have the questions submitted by fax or email rather than allow a reporter to speak to a company spokesperson over the phone.
Even when a request does reach a real live person, it is often deferred to someone else. Decision-making by committee has been a bane of Japan’s corporate life; comment-making via committee is alive and kicking, and does the organizations they represent no favors at all.
A failure to communicate could be seen by some as indicating a desire to conceal something unpleasant; it could also suggest the press division has no understanding of the matter being discussed or is simply disorganized and
And even when the conversation has gone smoothly and all the questions have been answered, there is all too often a sting in the tail: a 20-minute interview is suddenly unattributable, even when it has gone over areas that are already public knowledge and it is impossible to see how the content might be in any way controversial. Some publications refuse to use unattributed quotes, particularly for stories that are not sensitive.
Cultural biases inevitably color the way a foreign reporter deals with his or her sources, but anyone who has lived in another country should have learned to adopt local rituals when talking to contacts — from accepting business cards in the correct manner to being polite on the phone. And Japanese journalists also come up against the same problems when dealing with press officials.
By failing to get across a good story or — potentially more damagingly — not quickly putting a positive spin on a negative story, press departments are potentially harming their own interests. The bunker mentality does not work today.
If the kisha club system is outdated and unnecessary, so is the failure to impart information in a timely manner.
My pet goldfish is happy that it is not a cat.