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7 August 2012

Tepco, and why controlled transparency is the new opacity

Now you see us, now you don't.

By Josh Lowe

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. 

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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.

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