Behind LDP VIctory, a Sophisticated PR Effort

Behind the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) stunning victory in last week’s general election lay one of the most sophisticated public relations efforts ever attempted by a Japanese political party, writes blogger R30, who has made a name for himself by writing about the nexus between journalism and marketing.

R30, who blogs anonymously and asked that his name not be revealed, responded via e-mail to a series of questions posed by JMR. A former staff editor for what he calls Japan’s “most authoratative weekly business magazine,” he now acts as an assistant professor in marketing management at a part-time business school. Recently, he obtained one-hour interviews each with the PR directors of the LDP and their main opposition rival, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

“Until this election,” said R30, “the LDP’s election strategy was essentially to act on the hunches of the secretary general, who acted as the chief in command of the election campaign.” However, under the direction of upper house member Hiroshige Seko, deputy head of the LDP’s PR headquarters and a former public relations manager for NTT, that has changed.

All PR strategies are now based on data, R30 said. The LDP has hired a PR company, which analyzes the party’s image in the media every day. Questionnaires are conducted daily and weekly in which voters are asked to evaluate party leaders, their image, and their campaign promises. Based on these findings, the LDP charts out how it wishes to express its policy choices, what specific language to use, and in what media to make its appeal.

For instance, R30 noted that most media have reported that the LDP sought to limit discussion during the campaign to the postal privatization issue. On the contrary, he said, the LDP had prepared announcements about other policy issues and newspaper ads explaining its views. But the DPJ failed to elicit voter interest on other issues, so the LDP was able to stick to the one issue.

(Media sources might dispute R30’s claim that the LDP wasn’t responsible for keeping the public focused on the debate over privatizing Japan Post. For instance, Professor Thomas Berger of Boston University’s International Relations Department told JMR, “I did have the chance to talk at length with the Asahi newspaper reporter who covered the [prime minister], and he was very frustrated. The Asahi and other media outlets tried to widen the range of the issues that were dealt with in the campaign, but with only limited success.”)

Moreover, R30 said, the LDP endeavored to extend its media reach beyond television to include tabloids, trade papers, and even the Internet (see JMR’s piece “Blogs Begin to Impact Japanese Political World,” which discusses the LDP’s first outreach to bloggers.) For instance, it made its first efforts ever to reach out to Japan’s popular sports newspapers (tabloids), as well as to purchase advertisements in them. It did so to take advantage of the fact that sports newspapers feel freer to publish stories that don’t quote both sides of an issue. What’s more, it hoped to capitalize on the fact that the headlines of the sports newspapers are often re-reported on widely seen morning news programs.

The LDP’s outreach to new forms of media has important consequences, R30 wrote:

“The channel to politicians, which had once been monopolized by the large national newspapers, is now being opened to the tabloids and even to bloggers. Thus the status of the opinion leaders at the large national newspapers has rapidly become threatened … We can say that this election has revealed the breaking down of the hierarchy of the mass media (television > newspaper > weekly magazine > minor media), and at the same time, revealed the gradually declining status of opinion leaders, who, though they don’t supply particularly insightful commentary themselves, try to foment a crisis over the supposed triumph of populism.”

R30 had particularly sharp words for the opposition DPJ, which he claimed failed to even try to shape its media coverage. Though the DPJ had been first to seek a PR firm’s help in previous elections, its media strategy was particularly inept this time around, he said. For instance, R30 noted that the LDP was able to find out who the DPJ was fielding to appear in a televised debates and to refuse to participate if the DPJ candidate was strong, or substitute in a better candidate at the last minute. By contrast, the DPJ made no such effort in response.

Perhaps out of modesty, the LDP’s Seko denies R30’s claims that the party’s PR strategy was “particularly clever or unique.” On his own personal blog (which, ironically, he continued to write during the election campaign period despite all the noise about Web-posting being a potential violation of Japan’s Public Office Election Law), he notes that he has received a lot of media inquiries since the election asking about the LDP’s PR efforts. He says that he has told each reporter:

“The work of the communication strategy team is to objectively analyze the media situation, and to make sure that where the LDP’s message is not being communicated, to reconsider our strategy and change it on a daily basis. It’s not particularly glamorous … This time, my job was to make sure that Prime Minister Koizumi and the LDP’s strategy, tone and preparedness were perceived by the public, especially with regards to postal privatization. Public relations just assisted me in that effort.”

Interestingly, R30 says that the LDP owes the success of its PR strategy primarily to Seko’s business experience, rather than to any input or assistance from the political campaign industry in the United States. Though he notes that Seko did investigate the White House’s media response team, his model was the PR division at NTT where he had worked prior to entering politics.

As proof of this, R30 notes that the LDP turned to an external PR agency for help, rather than specialist election consultants, as is generally done in the United States. Moreover, the LDP used the firm to obtain research and media training, but not to conduct planning. By contrast, he says, the DPJ used a PR agency (Fleishman-Hillard) in a more “American-like” fashion.

NHK's Revival Plan Lays Off 10 Percent of Workforce

After months of deliberation, NHK Friday announced details of a plan to revive its troubled finances and restore its tarnished reputation, news reports said. The plan is expected to be approved by the public broadcaster’s executive committee next Tuesday.

Most drastically, the plan calls for laying off 1,200 employees, 10 percent of NHK’s workforce. If realized, it would mark the public broadcaster’s biggest staff reduction since its founding in 1926.

According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the plan emphasizes natural attrition through retirement as well as curtailing the number of new recruits over the course of three years beginning next April. The layoffs will affect reporters, program directors and technical staff.

They are intended to address NHK’s worsening financial situation as more and more viewers refuse to pay its mandatory licensing fees. These fees, which are required of every household in Japan that owns a television, have accounted for 96.4 percent of NHK’s total revenues. They amount to about 1,400 yen ($13) per month for a color TV.

As of the end of July, the number of households refusing to pay licensing fees had risen to 1.17 million.

In the last year, a growing number of Japanese has refused to pay the fees in protest over a series of embezzlement scandals and allegations that NHK censored its own programming due to political pressure. The scandals claimed the job of former Chairman Katsuji Ebisawa, who resigned in January.

The revival plan also contains proposals for cracking down on non-paying viewers. NHK says it will initiate legal action against them by sending letters through summary courts (essentially small claims courts) demanding payment. However, it will not “forcefully exact payment,” NHK President Genichi Hashimoto told The Asahi Shimbun earlier this month.

In the revival plan, NHK reaffirms its commitment to relying on viewer fees for its revenue.

“Precisely because we place the burden [of our finances] broadly on our viewers through licensing fees and do not accept advertising revenues or taxes,” it says, “we can deliver news and programming without being a prisoner to viewer ratings or specific points of view.”

And in a nod to criticism that NHK bowed to political pressure to censor a controversial 2001 documentary about Japan’s responsibility for World War II (for background on this issue, see JMR’s “Asahi Revisits NHK Censorship Allegations”), the plan notes that the mission of public broadcasting is “to attain autonomy and self-reliance, without being pressured or influenced by anyone, and to supply to all, without prejudice, information and richness of culture that is the foundation of all decision-making.”

Internet Newscaster Sues Yahoo Subsidiary for Blocking Controversial Ads

A pioneering Internet video newscaster is suing paid-listing provider Overture K.K. for allegedly refusing to distribute its advertisements because the ads mention news stories dealing with politically controversial subjects. News reports say the newscaster, Video News Network Inc. (VNN), sought a preliminary judgment Tuesday with the Tokyo District Court to force Overture to distribute its ads, saying the refusal violates its freedom of speech.

Calling itself Japan’s first news-only Internet broadcaster, VNN was launched in November 1999 by Tetsuo (“Teddy”) Jimbo, because he felt Japan needed “an independent, private sector broadcaster that didn’t rely on advertisement.” (As a matter of disclosure, this writer was a colleague of Jimbo’s at the Associated Press’ Tokyo Bureau in the late 1980s).

VNN’s site has since become known for its willingness to take on controversial topics. For instance, it has broadcast a series of 233 weekly talk shows called “Radical Talk on Demand” in which Jimbo discusses the news of the day with outspoken sociologist Shinji Miyadai, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University known for his research on high school girl prostitution and juvenile crime.

In March of this year, contracted with Overture to place its ads when it refreshes its own news site with current news stories. A fully owned subsidiary of Yahoo!, Overture manages a system that places Web advertisements according to how much an advertiser is willing to bet on specific search terms. Described from the user’s perspective, Overture’s system acts as a search engine that lists search findings according to how much advertisers bid on various search terms. Advertisers only pay Overture when visitors click on their ads.

In Japan, Overture’s search engine/advertising distribution system is used by Yahoo! Japan, the country’s most popular Web portal, MSN and among others.

However, soon after reaching agreement, Overture began refusing to place certain ads, especially those containing references to VNN news stories concerning controversial subjects such as the Yasukuni Shrine to Japan’s World War II dead, the anti-war Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, and anti-Japanese demonstrations. Such topics are commonly found in all of Japan’s mass media.

When asked about the rejected ads, Overture on July 13 responded to VNN saying, “In accordance with our [published] guidelines, we have decided that we cannot accept the ads for placement, because we have come across content that slanders specific political organizations and individuals.” In its basic rules of use, Overture requires its clients to guarantee that ad content will not include “slander, libel or intimidation.”

A dialogue between VNN and Overture ensued and finally in late July, Overture told VNN that it would no longer accept any VNN advertisements. VNN says a total of 174 ads were rejected.

For its part, VNN argues however that the articles or video referenced in its ads do not criticize specific people or organizations and therefore do not violate Overture’s guidelines. A spokesperson told the Mainichi Shimbun: “Because of [Overture’s] refusal [to place ads on our site], the number of visits to our site has continued to drop, and we have lost credibility as a media institution.”

Though it’s obviously very eager to advertise itself, VNN makes a point of not taking advertisement so it will retain journalistic objectivity. In a JMR story two years ago (“Video News Network Pioneers Internet TV in Japan”), JMR writer Jane Ellen Stevens noted that VNN gave founder Teddy Jimbo “the freedom to cover controversial topics the mainstream press ignores, but is anybody listening? Jimbo spends thousands a month to keep his Internet TV station running, but VNN’s alternative programming has attracted just 4,000 subscribers.”