Obama’s News Conference on the Disaster in Japan – What We Can Learn?

Last Thursday afternoon President Obama held a brief news conference to address the growing fears about possible radiation leaks from one of Japan’s nuclear power plants hit hard by the earthquake there just more than a week ago. Since the disaster, reports have varied and rumors have spread like a virus about potential danger to people living in Japan as well as those living as far away as Hawaii and California.

Communicating during times of a crisis is one of the most difficult assignments a leader faces. There are many “do’s and don’ts” when it comes to crisis communications. But, with proper planning and practice, a serious issue can be managed and addressed effectively. Here are a few top recommendations about communicating during a disaster and how I would grade the President. I have broken his speech into two categories: The content and the delivery:


1. Express Appropriate Concern for Those Most Affected. President Obama began his speech by saying, “The American people have been both heartbroken and deeply concerned about the developments in Japan.” His choices of words were sensitive and conveyed a deep feeling of compassion for our close ally.

2. Prioritize the issues, then directly address facts, rumors, and concerns. State what facts you know and what is being done. In this case, the issues were:

• Issue # 1: Americans living in Japan: Responding to the needs of the people most directly impacted by a crisis should always be the first key message. President Obama immediately addressed our government’s plan to protect Americans in Japan who may be “in harm’s way.” Although the Japanese identify the danger zone as a 12-mile radius around the power plant, Obama stated that U.S. officials, “after careful scientific evaluation,” have called for the evacuation all Americans within a 50 mile radius of the plant. The statement offers some reassurance that extra precautions are being taken to safeguard U.S. citizens in that region.

Issue # 2: Radioactive air reaching the U.S.: Next, the President addressed the greatest secondary concern: The possibility of radioactive air drifting to Alaska and the west coast of the U.S. “I want to be very clear.” said the President, “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific.” Obama did a good job of using the set-up phrase, “I want to be very clear.” It reinforced the rest of the statement. He also underscored that concern by pausing a moment and repeating the statement again.

• Issue # 3: Safety of U.S. nuclear power plants: President Obama confidently addressed the great “what if” scenario on everyone’s mind: Could this happen to our nuclear power plants? While stating our plants have been declared safe under a number of extreme emergencies, he gave a comforting promise saying, “I’ve asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan.”  The American public needed to hear the government was not assuming an arrogant stance and additional safety tests are not warranted.


Public confidence in the communicator is not only determined by what they say but how they look and sound when speaking. Facial expressions, eye contact, and vocal delivery have an enormous impact on the public’s opinion of the speaker’s sincerity and credibility. Reading from notes, the President was unable to make as much eye contact with the audience as I would have liked. Also, when a speech is read verbatim, it sounds too scripted and the words come out a bit detached from the heart. While Obama maintained a somber expression, he failed to use greater vocal intonations and warmer facial expressions, both which contribute to a more positive perception of compassion and sympathy.


Making strong eye contact is essential to winning the trust of your audience under any circumstances. In a crisis situation it is even greater. Using notes is often necessary, but you must rehearse several times to get familiar enough with the content that you do not look and sound like you are reading. Also, in times of a crisis, people want to hear words spoken in a warm and soothing tone. I know the President is capable of that kind of delivery. My guess is he had little, if any, time to rehearse for Thursday’s speech.


In times of a crisis, people look to their leaders for explanations, help, comfort, and guidance. Getting the words right is only half of what it takes to truly win the trust and confidence of your audience. You must also use facial expressions and vocal intonations that reflect the most expressive and important words in each sentence.