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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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