Implementing a media relations campaign in Japan is not an exercise for the squeamish.
It requires on-the-ground experience and relationships. In the U.S., PR cold-calls journalists on a daily basis. In comparison, PR in Japan would rarely reach out to a journalist without a proper introduction.
I remember years ago working with our Japan team to set up a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo for a U.S. client. I needed to know the cost of the venue and couldn’t understand why we couldn’t obtain this information from a five-minute phone call.
That’s not how things are done in Japan.
The account person needed to travel to the hotel and sit down with the hotel’s representative in charge of business event room rentals. This was the only way the discussion could eventually land on a price point.
When it comes to media relations, nothing captures the “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not Kansas anymore” line like the Japanese press club or kisha kurabu.
I asked Shingo Nomura, Hoffman VP of North Asia and GM of our Japan operation, to shed some light on the topic framed by a recent client experience.
Here’s an abbreviated version of the transcript.
Q) Let’s start with the obvious. What is a press club in Japan?
A) You can think of the press club as a channel to journalists. Each press club focuses on a government agency or industry. There are literally hundreds of press clubs across the country. Most of the media — from the national dailies, the largest five broadcasting companies, wire services and industry trade media — belong to a press club.
Q) I assume there’s a formal process for tapping these press clubs.
A) Yes. When you want to announce news to the press club, you have two options. You can either distribute a press release to the press club or you can hold a briefing at the press club. Either way, you need to get permission from the journalist or journalists acting in the organizer’s role. If the announcement is influential to wider industries, the organizing journalist might require you to not only deliver the press release, but also conduct a briefing.
Q) So there can be cases where the journalist instructs PR to hold a press briefing?
A) Right. Either way, if they approve it, you typically have 48 hours to square away the details.
Q) Assuming the news release is approved and a time for distribution is booked, what happens on the big day?
A) You take copies of the hardcopy version of the news release to the office of the press club where there are individual mailboxes for each media company. You leave the required numbers of press releases in each box.
Q) How long has this press club structure been around, and how does it impact journalists?
A) The system has been around for roughly 50 years. Journalists are used to being physically located in the government departments or industry organizations they report on.
Q) Does this prevent journalists from writing negative stories?
A) There’s no getting around the fact that the loyalty of Japanese journalists often ends up belonging to the officials in the government agency or organization in which they are housed. They are extremely reluctant to embarrass the group they report on because they are essentially part of it. There is a discussion that the press club may infringe on the right to know among citizens.
Q) It sounds like a similar dynamic to the beat reporters who cover a professional baseball team in the U.S.
A) Right. Even though there’s no official press club in the U.S., the journalists who cover a team like the San Francisco Giants spend the better part of six months with the players and coaches. It can create an awkward situation if the journalist criticizes the team or a player.
Q) Is there a press club in Tokyo that covers the tech industry?
A) No. The press clubs focus on specific areas like the government’s ministry of education or the construction industry or the telecom industry. The kisha kurubu concept hasn’t been applied to new industries brought forth by technology and the internet.
Q) So when we’re pitching journalists in Japan for a client, we can go directly to the journalists?
A) Exactly. We don’t need the press club as a channel.
Q) As you know, one of our U.S. clients that offers technology for digitizing warehouse operations recently announced a partnership with a Japanese company. Might this involve a press club?
A) That’s an interesting example because you have technology with relevance to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism which does have a press club. In theory, the Japanese partner could have followed protocol to distribute the news in this press club.
Q) Any other thoughts on the press club that we haven’t covered and might be useful for a Western audience?
A) There is a mandatory rule when you make the announcement to the press club. You are not allowed to disclose the news to any media before you deliver the news to the kisha club. You need to be very careful if you make a global announcement. The announcement to the press club should come first.
Another interesting point. Overseas media and freelance journalists have been not allowed membership to the press club. While this rule has been criticized for long time, the situation has not changed.