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.

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.