January 2014

The Cove Movie and Japan's Reputation

Bottlenoses and Reputation Bottlenecks


The recent celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life brought the apartheid era back into sharp relief and reminded us of the extent to which countries, as well as organisations, have reputations to protect.

Alongside the sporting and academic boycotts of apartheid era South Africa we also saw the birth of the responsible investment industry, catalyzed in part by the divestment from South Africa movement.  

Fast forward to the Wiki-leaks disclosures and we see the reputation and relationships enjoyed by the United States are just as fragile as any company’s.

International pressure on countries to halt egregious practices frequently attracts widespread media coverage. One such example that has tarnished the reputation of Japan has been the seasonal dolphin slaughter in Taiji, a town south west of Tokyo.

Taiji first gained widespread notoriety following the Academy Awards of 2010. That evening the Oscar for best documentary went to The Cove. The film is a call to action to halt the mass dolphin kills and to inform and educate the public about the intrinsic link between captive dolphins in amusement parks and the dolphin slaughter in Taiji.

The media coverage of the slaughter ranges from primetime CNN and BBC reports, to trending status on twitter and even the conservative Japanese media has tentatively started covering the story.

The fall out appears to be escalating, from calls for international boycotts by civil society to direct and public condemnation by the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. Tim Hitchens, the British Ambassador to Japan, added his voice to the debate by echoing the US stance.

An unlikely doyen of reputation management has emerged in Yoko Ono who wrote a bi-lingual open letter to her homeland. Ono said the hunt, in which hundreds of dolphins are herded into a cove to select the most attractive for sale to aquariums and the rest butchered for meat, was damaging the reputation of Japan.

“At this very politically sensitive time, (the hunt) will make the children of the world hate the Japanese.

“For many, many years and decades we have worked hard to receive true understanding of the Japanese from the world, but what we enjoy now, can be destroyed literally in one day. I beg of you to consider our precarious situation, especially after Fukushima.”

Richard Branson said  “Japan should realise the damage dolphin killing does to the reputation of an otherwise delightful country.”

While his motives are not in question, the media has noted it seems at odds with Virgin Holidays inclusion of marine parks and aquariums in their itineraries.

The spill-over of negative sentiment towards marine parks and dolphins in captivity is something Merlin Entertainments plc proactively addressed in its floatation documents when it listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2013, highlighting its opposition to keeping dolphins in captivity via its Sea Life subsidiary.

At the other end of the scale is SeaWorld who are currently exposing their brand to seemingly endless negative coverage, stemming from the Black Fish expose documentary on the treatment of their captive dolphin and whales.

Globally dolphinariums and travel and leisure companies with exposure to them are feeling the pressure, be it directly or via their joint venture. Knowing the history and supply chain of your assets (through acute listening and reputation tracking) is vital to avoid reputational tarnish, be they wild caught dolphins, clothes sewn in Bangladeshi factories or horsemeat masquerading as beef.