Translated literally, keiretsu in Japanese means ‘headless combine’. Sadly, it would seem a reasonable description of the state of Japan’s mega-corporations and their relationship with the Japanese mainstream media after reading Michael Woodford’s Exposure over Chinese New Year.
Having slogged his way to the top of camera and medical tech firm Olympus, a rare achievement in Japan for a gaijin, Woodford memorably blew the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses, making him one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history and Olympus a default case study in corporate governance abuse.
It is striking that while the story was broken by Facta, a small Japanese magazine, and lapped up by the international business media, Japan’s mainstream newspapers and broadcasters would not run what was probably Japan’s biggest business story of the past decade. Why? Apparently out of a fear of losing advertising revenue and concern that they might expose themselves legally.
Only when the independent Third-Party Committee had reported its findings and established the guilt of Olympus’ leadership did the local media jump on the bandwagon, even if (as Woodford points in an insightful interview with the Japan Times) they only then reported, not investigated.
Woodford was clearly adept at working the media. Yet he also knew that if he was to return to lead the company then he had to make his case direct to Olympus’ workforce, leading his team to set up olympusgrassroots.com, a (now defunct) website for Olympus employees, and to conduct an open interview/Q&A for website members on Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga.
This was a PR masterstroke, providing Woodford and his team with a direct route to communicate with and galvanise rank and file staffers and enable them publicly to demonstrate their support – not easy in a culture in which people rarely go publicly against the grain or express their opinion on controversial matters. It also proved a useful tool rebutting misleading statements being circulated by the Olympus leadership.
Worth watching is Woodford’s performance on Nico Nico Douga, in which he comes across as assured, sincere and objective, despite having had almost no sleep for days.
Of course, there’s nothing much new about using digital networks to circumnavigate formal communications channels. But its use as a proactive PR channel by a CEO against his board is a novel scenario. Certainly nothing like it had been seen in Japan.
Ultimately, Exposure is a fascinating insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It also persuasively demonstrates the power of communication and some of the techniques available to help force an issue into the open in a tightly controlled and conservative business and media environment.