Parthenon Japan’s Guide to Public Relations in Japan

Fried Chicken for Christmas, in Japan?!

“KFC Transformed its namesake product into a beloved Christmas meal in Japan…”

Global companies in Japan often encounter challenges to align messaging with Japanese preferences. Yet, this challenge can be an opportunity, as seen with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which turned its namesake product into a Christmas staple in Japan despite the holiday’s limited religious significance. 

This blog post delves into KFC’s success and Japan’s distinctive PR landscape, offering insights and stories.

The Evolution of Japan’s Communications Industry

Japan’s communications industry has a rich history, led by major ad firms like Dentsu and Hakuhodo. Dentsu, initially a newswire agency established in 1901, evolved into Japan’s largest integrated agency, while Dentsu PR, established in 1961, adopted U.S. PR trends and best practices and applied them to the Japanese market. The 1980 establishment of The Public Relations Society of Japan was a crucial moment in the industry’s growth. Today there are over 300 member companies that are engaged in PR in Japan, including Parthenon Japan, PR firms of all sizes, and internal PR representatives for both domestic and foreign companies in Japan.

The Changing Role of Domestic and Foreign PR Firms

Major foreign PR firms began establishing a presence in Japan in the 1990s. While Japanese companies traditionally use local PR agencies, nowadays, there’s a change: more foreign companies choose local PR firms to save money, and Japanese firms are increasingly hiring foreign PR agencies, especially after the disruptions of the 2020 pandemic. Shifts in Japan’s PR landscape over the past decade show a stronger focus on global communication, and was a catalyst for Parthenon Japan’s establishment in 2018. We use a strategic combination of global and local best practices to serve our clients, both Japanese and foreign-capital companies.

Why PR Must Be Approached Differently in Japan

PR in Japan is distinct due to cultural nuances, media dynamics, and communication practices. Even basics like market differentiation require a unique approach. This information alone won’t make you a Japanese PR expert, but it provides valuable context. Understanding how major Japanese firms tailor their communication in your industry can inspire your research into industry-specific stakeholder connections. This foundational knowledge is essential, even if there are some similarities in communication styles; aligning with stakeholder expectations is crucial before crafting your approach.

Japan’s PR Industry: How to make it work for you

Japan’s PR industry differs vastly from the US and other major global markets due to its recent embracing of strategic PR, limited engagement in dynamic PR activities, and language barriers, especially in specialized areas where global messages are often lost in translation. Consider adding dedicated resources if your current in-house team needs help to achieve your company’s goals, although finding bilingual specialists is challenging. Our suggested approach combines internal and external resources, fostering collaboration and documentation for smooth transitions. While hiring a PR consultant comes with added costs, it adds an extra layer of strategy and activation capability, and can also mitigate personnel change risks that sometimes causes PR activities to grind to a halt.

Case study: Mitsubishi Fuso’s “Super Great” truck might not make sense to you, but they keep on truckin’ 

During a college visit to Mitsubishi Fuso‘s global headquarters, I questioned the unusual name “Super Great” for one of their products. A subsidiary of German Daimler Truck, I was surprised that a global company would have a product with such a grandiose name. The company’s response was simple: Japanese customers love it, so why change it as long as sales are excellent? This illustrates my favorite saying in Tennessee : “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What works for branding aimed at the Japanese market is sometimes counterintuitive, so you need local insights to make sure that your strategy will resonate in Japan.

Navigating Japanese Media

In Japan, media relationships play a pivotal role in creating any PR strategy. Despite the rise of digital platforms, traditional mass media such as television and newspapers remain highly influential. To succeed in Japan’s media landscape, consider the following:

  1. Don’t Overlook Mass Media Strategies: Give due importance to traditional media outlets.
  2. Focus on Key Print Outlets: Major Publications like Yomiuri Shimbun and Nikkei are difficult to approach, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor because they carry significant weight as some of the most high-circulation daily newspapers in the world.
  3. Understand the Press Club System: Japan’s exclusive press club system requires a nuanced approach. With over 40 major press clubs with exclusive membership to certain key media outlets, holding a press conference at a press club greatly enhances the possibility of securing major coverage.
  4. Build Relationships with Journalists: Developing strong connections with journalists can lead to better coverage.
  5. Highlight Uniqueness: Japanese journalists are interested in trends and what sets your company apart in Japan.
  6. Rely on Facts and Data: In Japanese PR, facts and data are valued, and fluff doesn’t cut it.
  7. Maintain a Japan-Centric Perspective: Even in global activities, cater to the Japanese audience’s preferences and expectations.
  8. Prepare for Crisis Management: Companies hit with a crisis in Japan are subject to intense media scrutiny, so be prepared. [These are our recommendations for handling crisis communications in Japan]
  9. Use Interpreters for Japanese Interviews: Clear communication is essential in interviews. Even if the spokesperson is non-native but fluent in Japanese, having an interpreter in an interview helps the interviewee by giving them extra time to think about each answer and avoid being misquoted.
  10. Build Meaningful Relationships with Journalists: Nurture long-term connections with journalists in target media outlets

In Japan, media relations can make or break your business, and should be treated as such.


Navigating Social Media in Japan

Japan’s social media landscape has its own unique characteristics, and adapting to them is vital for effective PR and marketing. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. YouTube: Popular but requires localized content. Japanese subtitles are a must, and narration is highly recommended for non-Japanese content. Subtitling or dubbing videos is not just a translation job, but also requires thorough understanding of the information and how to communicate it to a Japanese audience.
  2. Facebook: Serves as a business platform with privacy settings. Newcomers to Japan are often surprised that Japanese work colleagues send them friend requests, but this is entirely normal in Japan. Learn those privacy settings if you would rather not share family photos with your business associates.
  3. Instagram: Essential for consumer-focused brands, but also can be useful for any firm who wants to broaden their local social presence. While posting photos might seem easy, brands need to understand their target audience and create Japan-specific content to get noticed.
  4. X (Twitter): Widely used, with outspoken, anonymous users. This is the place where Japan goes to vent their frustrations. While extremely powerful, X requires a fine-tuned strategy to maximize engagement while minimizing potential risks.
  5. LinkedIn: Has limited popularity in Japan, but LinkedIn works for recruiting bilingual talent and is also our favorite platform for targeted B2B ads.
  6. Line: Dominates communication and consumer-oriented marketing. As Japan’s premier domestic social media and communication app, Line can help brands raise awareness among over 95 million users (as of June 2023).
  7. TikTok: Popular among young adults, ideal for consumer brands. While TikTok makes video creation easy for users, brands need to have a focused strategy and superlative creative production capabilities.

Adapting to these nuances is crucial for effective PR and marketing in Japan.

Preparing for Crisis: The Do’s and Don’ts

Effective crisis communication is of utmost importance in Japan. A notable example of what not to do is the case of Schindler Elevator Corporation in 2006. They mishandled the crisis in three key ways:

  1. Avoiding Journalists Initially: This left reporters frustrated, and they responded by highlighting voices that were overwhelmingly negative. In addition, company management literally hid in the office when reporters showed up outside.
  2. Lacking Contrition in Messaging: Their communication lacked remorse and focused on avoiding blame. They blamed the maintenance company for the problem, which might have been the root cause, but there was inadequate understanding of the fact that the media saw them as responsible as the elevator’s manufacturer..
  3. Failing to Follow Up: After the press conference, they failed to communicate adequately, leading to severe consequences.

So, what should they have done?

  • Show Leadership and Openness: Addressing the situation with openness and leadership is essential.
  • Demonstrate Contrition: Expressing remorse without necessarily accepting blame can be effective.
  • Act Quickly: A Rapid response with clear messaging, possibly with the assistance of a crisis communications consultant, is crucial.

For foreign companies in Japan, crisis readiness, simulations, and media training are vital. Understanding Japanese media and public expectations is essential. In summary, proactive communication is crucial, even in inconvenient situations, to avoid crises.


Kentucky Fried Japanese Christmas: The Birth of a Beloved Tradition

KFC’s Christmas popularity in Japan is a fascinating story of effective communication. Despite Christmas not being a religious holiday in Japan, KFC seized the opportunity in the 1970s and 1980s as fast-food chains like McDonald’s were on the rise. The tradition began with Takeshi Okawara‘s vision of a “party barrel” for Christmas dinner, after noticing that foreign customers were buying KFC as a Christmas meal. KFC’s Kentucky for Christmas campaign in 1974 struck a chord with the growing middle class and trend-followers. Even today, people queue up for KFC party buckets during the holidays, offering two key communication lessons.

  1. Bottom-Up Strategy: Empowering employees to generate innovative ideas and insights can lead to widespread success.
  2. Consistency and Adaptation: Building on existing cultural trends, such as Christmas, can create lasting market demand. Now that KFC is closely associated with Christmas, they have had consistent success during the holiday season for over 40 years.

KFC’s approach illustrates how effective communication and strategic marketing can transform a localized campaign into a beloved national tradition.

Mastering public relations in Japan requires a deep understanding of its unique PR landscape, cultural nuances, and media dynamics. Success stories like KFC’s Christmas tradition demonstrate that with the right approach and creative thinking, global companies can not only navigate the challenges but also turn them into opportunities in the Japanese market.

About the Author

Parker J. Allen established Parthenon Japan in 2018 with the goal of bridging the communication gap between business, government, and society, based on extensive experience as a government relations & PR consultant for global firms in Japan.