Tepco, and why controlled transparency is the new opacity

Now you see us, now you don't.

Oh for the days when a troubled business could go into lockdown and settle in for a good old fashioned speculation siege. In today's caring, sharing world, companies like Tepco, the owner of Japan's Fukushima power plant which released video records of employees dealing with last year's meltdown, can no longer retreat into an impenetrable fortress made of complicated reports, arrogance and cash. The public demand information, the media will be granted access, and by god if they don't write hysterical analysis pieces until they are. If you're smart, though, this need not be a bad thing: give them what they think they want, and they just might not ask for more. Controlled transparency is the new opacity.

With about 150 hours of footage released, it'll be a while before conclusions can be drawn. This is particularly true since large portions of sound are missing - Tepco says the tapes were edited to protect employee confidentiality. When those conclusions arrive, they'll hit the press before they hit the courts, and Tepco may well find that a decision they were forced into by governmental pressure might be the best they could have made in public image terms. If nothing else, when you release the info, your crisis strategy is presumably somewhat better tooled. 

Recently, tarnished or obscure businesses of all stripes have been employing this uniquely 21st century strategy: opening their doors to the public, but in a mediated fashion and on their own terms. In yesterday's G2, Tom Meltzer covered "Debt and The City: a Political Tour", a new venture by political tour pioneer Nicholas Wood which aims to explore the causes and roots of the financial crisis through a guided walk and a series of lectures. Starring various senior bankers and featuring a fabulous city lunch, it's a bit more How to Spend it than Time Out, but it's a cute idea. Hats should be removed in praise of whoever had the foresight to piggy back off it. 

In the course of his jolly round the Square Mile, Meltzer is introduced to representatives of Ernst and Young and Seven Investment Management, both of whom will likely benefit enormously from their involvement. It's a PR person's dream: the chance to demonstrate company expertise with a human face to a captive audience, whilst at the same time suffering virtually zero risk of unwelcome exploration. It can't be long before everyone's doing it. I say go one better and open a family theme park. Thrill! at the twists and turns of the Northern Rock and Rollacoaster, the world's only ride to culminate in a two hour ascent toward a massive, smiling model of Richard Branson. 

The real masters are McDonalds, who secured two PR coups in the form of a pair of now infamous YouTube videos, one released last month, the other earlier this month, each of which balances revelation and obfuscation in a dance of image management which is nothing less than balletic. 

Whilst the second video, in which executive chef Dan Coudreaut demonstrates how to make a Big Mac at home using the words "Big Mac" and "restaurant" as many times as humanly possible, is entertaining, and scored some formerly unattainable positive coverage for the company in the broadsheet press, the first video was the masterstroke.

The short features Hope Bagozzi, McDonalds Canada's director of marketing, taking us behind the scenes at one of the brand's food styling studios to explain to a concerned tweeter why McDonalds' hamburgers look different in photos to the way they do in real life. With a perfectly pitched mix of cod science, hand on heart reason and loveable Canadian hospitality (this would not have played as well if we'd been face to face with employees of McDonalds UK), the video explains beautifully how a burger is taken through the styling process until we're so blinded with information/gnawing hunger that we forget what the question was in the first place.

Whether it ends up working for Tepco or not, controlled transparency is dangerous. In a world where public information is increasingly dominated by PR content, it was only a matter of time before this content began mimicking serious investigative forms: behind the scenes documentary, personal interview, leaked video. In an age when seemingly revelatory material can and will be shared near instantaneously, half an answer can be far more evasive than no answer at all.

Protestors outside a Tepco shareholders meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.