Crisis Communication: Crisis Planning

Evaluation, Assessment, and Planning. Tohoku, Japan 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, Regional Crisis and Aftermath.

Part One: Executive Summary

Role of Emergency Manager in crisis:

Any Crisis Communication or Emergency Manager must understand that it is impossible to prevent a disaster, but it is critically important to be prepared for it and to educate the public on the options, while continuously evaluate potential threats and promote exit strategy to minimize crisis and possible devastation for humanity.

As Federal Emergency Management Agency defines it, the role of the local emergency manager is to manage resources before, during, and after a major emergency and disaster, conducting activities related to the key components of emergency management and coordinating with partners in the emergency management process. (FEMA, n.d.) The resource management consists of personal and material resources inventory, identification and resolution of the deficiencies of those resources, and development and execution of public awareness programs. (FEMA, n.d.) Emergency management consists of coordination and close cooperation with organizations and government agencies, identification and analysis of potential impacts and hazards, and coordination of local emergency and disaster protocols. Emergency management partnership and process ensure awareness of potential threats, mitigation, and prevention activities, emergency and disaster planning. (FEMA, n.d.)

Incident Overview:

State of Reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, April 2017 (Source: World Nuclear Association).
State of Reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, April 2017 (Source: World Nuclear Association).

On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, 231 miles northeast of Tokyo, at a depth of 15.2 miles. This was the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan. (CNN, 2018) 10 to 30 minutes later a 33 ft (10m) massive triggered tsunami made the first landfall. There were many reports of tsunami waves three stories high in some parts of Japan. (NOAA, n.d.) Some reports show waves reach 130 feet high.  Tsunami waves damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As a result, nearly 20,000 people died and about 2,500 declared missing. (CNN, 2018)  Deaths, according to CNN report, were caused by the initial earthquake and tsunami and by post-disaster health conditions.

Estimated around 500,000 people were displaced due to radiation or tsunami survivor refuge. (World Nuclear Association, 2018) In the “Japan’s 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster,” by Kimberly Amadeo in The Balance (part of the Dotdash publishing family) the data shows many people in the area were elderly. Rescue efforts were difficult due to cold weather and disrupted transportation routes.  The disaster destroyed 138,000 buildings and cost $360 billion in economic damage. The tsunami swept 5 million tons of debris out into the ocean. About 70 percent sank, leaving 1.5 million tons floating in the ocean. (Amadeo, 2019)

The Balance in its economic impact report also stated that radiation showed up in local milk, vegetables, and drinking water. Radioactive materials continue to leak into the Pacific Ocean, raising levels to 4,000 times the legal limit.

Uncertainty about acute and ongoing radioactivity exposures has heightened public anxiety, crippled local economies, and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in Japan. (Pacchioli, 2013) The impact of the “Triple Disaster” was felt in infrastructure and buildings, nuclear industry, financial markets and national debt, and growth of the region, let alone further long-term impact to the local and global environment.

Part Two: Risk and Crisis Identification & Audience Analysis

Risk and Crisis defined

The term Risk Communication is a type of communication about environmental health, assessing and communicating to the audience the good and the bad and the magnitude of an outcome from behavior or exposure. (CDC, 2014)

 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) Guide identifies the term Crisis Communication in two ways.  First, it is an activity of an organization or agency facing a crisis that has occurred unexpectedly, may not be under the organization’s control, requires immediate response and may cause harm to the organization’s reputation, image or viability. Second, crisis communication is associated with emergency management and the need to inform and alert the public about an event, in which case it is an effort of the community leaders to inform the public. In both cases, a typical crisis is an unexpected and threatening event that requires an immediate response.  (CDC, 2014)

Crisis and Risk Communication occurred during the Fukushima triple disaster. In both types of communication, the goal is to contain public outrage. What first began as emergency response and risk management, turned into crisis communication.

Crisis and risk communication involve many agencies and groups that take different roles when disaster strikes.  Government organizations, emergency response teams, non-governmental entities, private organizations and individual members of the community, each play a part of the cooperation effort in response to a disaster.  Government plays a central role in providing an environment for research, implementation, preparation, and execution of the response to any disaster and appropriate communication to the audience.

The question is, what needs to be put in place before the disaster strikes? Was there a system of checks and balances implemented and continuously improved to promote effective response and communication to minimize damage to infrastructure and, most importantly, loss of life? How did it perform?

In the case of the Triple Disaster, the crisis and risk communication had its attainments and pitfalls.  According to The Asia-Pacific Journal article “Can Japan Respond Better to its Next Large Disaster?” Leo Bosner, a research fellow at Kanagawa University, points out several pitfalls and provides solutions to the incident management. In particular, he mentions the role of inadequate communication and its effect on resource management and awareness of the current situation. 

According to the article, The Self Defense Force (SDF), Japan’s unified military forces were quick to mobilize and dispatched in large numbers to respond to the disaster. This demonstrates an enormous benefit Japan’s disaster response capability, but it also carries the risk of over-reliance on SDF to the detriment of the broader government planning and response preparation. (Bosner, May 21, 2012) The message from the government was a response to the natural disaster.

Perhaps at this point it is important to consider the critical functions in approaching non-specific disaster preparedness.  According to the National Response Framework Incident Categorization described in CDC CERC, the crisis event started as a natural disaster, caused by natural events. The chain of events turned a natural disaster into a nuclear incident.

James M. Acton and Mark Hibbs in their article published on Carnegie Endowment website argue that Fukushima nuclear meltdown would have never happened, if Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), followed international best practices and standards. The disaster would have been predicted if the plant was being struck by a massive tsunami model has been considered. (Acton & Hibbs, 2012)  Instead, it was largely ignored by the agencies. Bosner identified that Japan Government would respond better to the disaster and perhaps avoid the nuclear incident all together if it stepped away from “hazard-specific” disaster planning to “all-hazard” approach, where plans are identified not by disaster but by the mechanism and their functions that would help identify the possible threats.

Audience type:

According to CERC, communication during a crisis is dynamic and creates needs to adapt systems, procedures, channels, and messages. Understanding the audience as the primary message receiver is critical to effective communication. (CDC, 2014)  As the incident took place, the government of Japan responded to the natural disaster swiftly but was not prepared to deal with the nuclear incident when a massive tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake flooding the nuclear plant, drowning the generators and effectively causing the meltdown of the nuclear reactors. Instead of dynamic communication, the government chose to send one-way messages to the public. From this, it seems that the target for communication improvement is between the government agencies, field responders and communication management. However, the ultimate audience is the general public in the area of disaster, and the general public was not properly informed or communicated to during disaster.

Part Three: Crisis Assessment for Global Population

While Japan crisis management revealed the superb response of the community and quick mobilization of the Self Defense Response, the risk management failed to prevent the nuclear disaster, which, according to Acton and Hibbs was preventable.  If the tsunami preparedness was adequately addressed at the nuclear plant, the accident would not have happened in the first place. Few sources confirm that the national interests were taking precedence over people’s safety. In the case of the Fukushima accident, it was clear that the government failed to implement adequate protection to the reactors and promote an exit strategy for nuclear energy generation, specifically located at the most vulnerable zone. The messaging shifted from crisis management to a risk strategy to address the public outrage of the accident.

Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 2011 have a long-lasting global impact. According to the article from The Balance, immediate impact originally caused the closedown of the airports briefly, which in turn, caused disruptions in the global supply chain of semiconductors and materials, which caused automakers such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki to temporarily suspend their production for the US market. A total of 22 plants were shut. However, the initial natural disaster response widened and became a health threat and environmental crisis. By 2015, 2 million tons of pollution were added to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Amadeo, 2019)

Prior to the accident government of Japan along with TEPCO assured the public that the accidents could not occur in Japan, declaring nuclear power as a safe energy source, consequently facing the March 11 earthquake totally unprepared. (NAIIC, 2012)

According to the NAICC article, the accident took place because the safety measures were largely ignored. The issues with nuclear threat were a risk due to the national interest in nuclear energy presiding over the safety of its people. The “it is highly unlikely” attitude is precisely what turned a natural disaster into a man-made crisis. The public outrage was raised to the levels strong enough to create the first-ever investigation commission in Japan’s history of constitutional government. House of Councilors of the National Diet to represent the people of Japan, independent from government and from nuclear energy operators.

According to a BBC News article, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says 46,386 workers were employed in 2016 and the Radiation Worker Central Registration Centre of Japan says as many as 76,951 decontamination workers were hired in the five-year period up to 2016, the UN says. (BBC, 2018) The Fukushima reactor release of radioactive elements into the Pacific has been a direct threat to the local environment, however, today is not as much of a direct health threat as it was initially, but it does indicate ongoing radiation leaks. (Buesseler, 2018)

Part Four: Messaging Strategy

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) Guide suggests that emergency managers use the axiom “all disasters are local” to emphasize that crises happen in a specific place and affect a specific community or group of communities. (CDC, 2014) CDC CERC identifies six principles of effective crisis communication. These principles are:

    1. Be First: Crisis is time-sensitive, communication to the public as a first source of information is of vital importance to establish the credibility of the source.
    2. Be Right: Or in other words, emergency manager must be accurate and present all known information, what is unknown and what needs to be done.
    3. Be Credible: This also means to be truthful and honest with all assessments of the crisis/disaster to minimize damaging and wrong information.
    4. Express Empathy: Understanding that harm and suffering is done to others must be acknowledged and verbalized.
    5. Promote Action: Re-direct anxiety towards productive and meaningful actions to restore order and reduce panic.
    6. Show Respect: Disaster and crisis is the time of vulnerability. Establishing rapport with the public promotes display of respect and understanding of the situation in the public’s eye.

The pattern of the crisis and its understanding can help to communicate effectively. Given the well-trained incident communication management was put in place, at the time of the incident it would have been easier to manage the communication response, consequently keeping public outrage in control. While every crisis is unique and develops in its own way, there is a generalized pattern to be a part of most events. This pattern is called Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Lifecycle. By dividing the crisis into phases, communicators can anticipate the information needs of the media, stakeholders, and the general public. (CDC, 2014)

CDC CERC provides five phases:

    • Pre-crisis.
    • Initial.
    • Maintenance.
    • Resolution.
    • Evaluation.

Pre-crisis. The government’s preparedness for two-way communication takes place during the pre-crisis phase. Communication objectives during this phase include planning and preparations, fostering of alliances with stakeholders, developing consensus recommendations, developing systems and redundancies such as hotlines joint information centers (JICs), and digital channels, such as websites and social media. (CDC, 2014)

Initial. During the initial phase of the crisis, it is critical to collect information about what happened, to interpret and separate facts from rumors, and determine communication response based on truthful information. The public wants to know who, what, where, when, and why.  People’s lives depend on adequate risk assessment of possible threats and effective communication of those risks and threats during the crisis stages.

Maintenance. During this phase, ongoing risks are explained, and audience segmentation takes place. Background information is provided and rumors get addressed.

Resolution. The CERC Rythm model suggests that during this phase, communication motivates vigilance, discussion of the lessons learned, and plan revision take place.

Evaluation. When all is said and done, the evaluation phase provides further feedback to improve future communication strategies. Government must seek input from responders, and experts, in order to improve the processes, evaluate what could have been done better, what can be done to strengthen the system and report the findings back to the people to reduce outrage.

In reality, the emergency management of this event lost its JIC, as the center was contaminated with radiation, as a result of close proximity to the place of the incident.  Bosner points out that communication between the government and the field responders seemed to go in one direction only, from the top down. Field responders at the disaster sites had no effective means to notify the government of their requirements. Instead, the government appeared to rely in large part on the news media for information regarding the current situation. This resulted in the government to be often completely unaware and/or misinformed as to what was needed in the field, leading to misallocation of resources… (Bosner, May 21, 2012)

Alternatively, social media would have provided a platform for communication to the public and stakeholders.  Analytical tools provide a great insight on communication and the platform itself serves as a documented timeline of the incident. During the incident landlines were down, mobile phone lines were clogged, and did not work for many, social media was the only outlet of communication and the only information source.

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provide a great social media platform to address a crisis or a disaster and keep a finger on the pulse of the public. Implementing social media strategy would help to respond in managing the crisis.  CDC CERC provides some useful practices for utilizing social media during crisis events. These can be very helpful in determining social media strategy:

    • Join the conversation, address rumors immediately by responding to misinformation.
    • Fact check all information and truthfully respond to the questions.
    • Recognize that news and media organizations already using social media channels.
    • Social media are interpersonal.
    • Use social media as a primary form of updates
    • Organizations can use social media for updates on crisis response and recovery.
    • Ask for help and give direction.
    • Social Media are a tool to gain insight, understand the emotional response, gather perceptions, feelings, and impressions.

In conclusion, in preparation for the earthquake and tsunami, the threat of nuclear disaster escaped the focal point of the public. As Bosner points out to implement a national incident management system such as National Incident Management System (NIMS) currently used in the United States provides a structure for the coordinated response that includes four core functions: information gathering, information dissemination, operations support, and communication liaisons. (CDC, 2014)  A communication plan developed by NIMS would not necessarily eliminate the risk of disaster, but it would have provided a more objective approach to disaster management and promote effective risk communication, possibly preventing the nuclear incident altogether.

Works Cited

Acton, J. M., & Hibbs, M. (2012, March 6). Why Fukushima Was Preventable. Retrieved from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Amadeo, K. (2019, February 10). Japan’s 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster. Retrieved from The Balance:

BBC. (2018, August). Fukushima Nucklear Disaster: UN Says clean-up workers risk exploitation. Retrieved from BBC News:

Bosner, L. (May 21, 2012). Can Japan Respond Better to its Next Large Disaster? The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 21, No 1.

Buesseler, K. (2018). FAQs: Ratioaion from Fukushima. Retrieved from Woods Hole Oceanographic Insitution:

CDC. (2014). Crisis & Emergency Risk Communications (CERC). Retrieved from Emergency Preparedness and Response:

CNN. (2018, March 16). 2011 Japan Earthquake Tsunami Fast Facts. Retrieved from CNN:—tsunami-fast-facts/index.html

FEMA. (n.d.). Role of Local Emergency Managers. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from FEMA:

NAIIC. (2012, September 12). NAIIC Report. Retrieved from The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission:

NOAA. (n.d.). Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Wave Heights – March 2011. Retrieved from Science on a Sphere:

Pacchioli, D. (2013, April 25). Japan’s Tripple Disaster. Retrieved from Oceanus Magazine:

World Nuclear Association. (2018, October). Fukushima Daiichi Accident. Retrieved from World Nuclear Association:

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