A revolution coming in Japanese media relations?
Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times contained an interesting article that caught my eye: “New Leaders in Japan Seek to End Cozy Ties to Press Clubs.”
When I was building a communications consultancy in Tokyo from scratch in 2005, I remember being told repeatedly that one reason foreign-owned PR firms would never be successful in Japan is the unique press club system of that country, where the mainstream media continues to loom very large with newspapers reigning supreme.
Like a lot of the dire predictions I heard in a discouraging way in those days (e.g. “Japan is too expensive for a profitable business,” “You will never find talented employees,” etc.), it proved to be grossly overstated, but I did experience the power of the press clubs and saw their critical role in making or breaking successful media relations campaigns.
I remember one time  we issued a news release announcing the new CEO of a company. We distributed it via e-mail, with a picture of the new leader attached. We also dispatched one of our team to the relevant press club (who needed to seek permission to do so beforehand), and she distributed the release by hand, which was accompanied by a hard copy of the CEO’s picture (on photo stock). As the newcomer to Japan, I was surprised how much of the resulting coverage came from the hard copy material circulated via the press club rather than via electronic means.
These press clubs have been analogue anachronisms in a digital age, but that is part of the challenge and the charm of PR in Japan. This is a country where press releases are still credible, where large-scale press events remain commonplace, and where PR agencies still send faxes to reporters. It’s also a land where through ‘desk-side’ briefings, there can be a more friendly relationship-rich approach to media relations.
Neighboring Korea also had a similar system of press clubs, but with the propagation of e-mail addresses several years ago came the ability to communicate with media point-to-point, thus breaching ‘the wall.’ Things can take longer in Japan — often for the better, sometimes for the worse — and now that there’s real reform coming in the ‘news cartel’ system in Tokyo, the pent-up demand for modern communications consulting will rapidly boost firms able to compete on consulting quality, not just media relations quantity.