What Do PR Agencies in Japan Offer Foreign Brands? From Traditional to Digital-First PR Strategy

Posted By Jim Kersey

Japanese mainstream media continues to hold influence and many international brands still rely on traditional PR firms to get their message out there through newspapers, magazines, and TV. However, the nation’s rather puzzling and arcane press club system means that most non-Japanese businesses need a lot of help in actually getting the right coverage.

The easiest route to achieve this used to be working with a good PR firm located here. Yet, while Japanese PR has long been a cornerstone of any successful market entry strategy, public relations in Japan, as an industry and a profession, has rapidly advanced over the years.

We’ve seen the sector align with global trends in digital-first content marketing, but also evolve in a classically Japanese way that’s heavily influenced by the country’s undying love for traditional media, the dominance of Japan’s media giants, and the nation’s unique cultural landscape.

In this post, we explain how foreign brands can get their heads around the Japanese PR scene and decide how much (if any) energy and budget should be put into the PR component of their local marketing initiatives.

Table of Contents

  1. What is PR like in Japan?
  2. Developments in Japanese PR
  3. Services offered by Japanese PR agencies
  4. What role should PR play in your strategy for entering the Japanese market
  5. Questions to ask prospective PR agencies in Japan
  6. Final tips!

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What is PR Like in Japan?

Public relations has played an integral role in the success of pretty much every big Japanese brand you can think of. Even for government bodies, NGOs, corporations, and professional and trade union groups, it has been a vital way to communicate with the Japanese public and be seen.

TV, newspapers and even radio still remain integral to people’s daily lives, with the average person watching over 2 hours of traditional television per day, in addition to consuming a huge amount of media from various other sources.

The competition for space is extreme. Companies are forced to pay a great deal for even the shortest commercial time slots (often around just 15-seconds), while the only way to get your press release noticed amidst the piles of daily press releases editors receive each day is to build personal relationships within the sector and arrange face to face meetings or follow-up calls. And this has long been the most important role of PR agencies in Japan.

This might not sound that different to how PR works in most developed countries, but the second important thing to know about Japan is how complex and hard it is to understand Japan’s press club system.

When trying to deliver information to any of the nation’s major dailies and broadcasting units, you’ll be faced with highly specific procedures and rules as to how and when you can submit your information. Only those with experience can easily navigate the world of Japanese PR.

Developments in Japanese PR

Man on train reviewing content published by PR agencies in Japan

Over the last decade, traditional public relations has gone through a dramatic change due to the ongoing evolution of digital marketing and the increasing call from businesses for more accurate performance tracking. A few key takeaways from all this are:

Platforms offering digital PR services have grown significantly in recent years, such as the popular PR Times whose popularity and sales have steadily grown between 2016-2021.

Many PR firms — especially small or mid-sized boutique agencies — are launching or enhancing new services to give their clients more than just PR, such as content creation and digital marketing too.

We’re seeing much more cross over between marketing activities and PR where the shared goal is to take something unique and newsworthy and work on amplifying reach to as many people as possible, whether that’s through a conventional network of press contacts or through digital advertising and marketing channels.

Traditional face-to face opportunities between PR agencies in Japan with press officers and editors has decreased, forcing people to find new ways to develop relationships virtually.

PR is no longer considered a one-way street (simply getting your message to the greatest number of readers/viewers on the country’s most popular channels). Successful companies and agencies realise that strategies need to entice audiences into engaging and interacting with brands.

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Services Offered by Japanese PR Agencies

Japanese influencer working with PR agencies in Japan for promotion

A survey conducted by The Public Relations Society of Japan (PRSJ) on 202 PR companies gives us a good snapshot of the kind of services that PR agencies in Japan offer are now offering, and the way the market is shifting towards multidisciplinary communication strategies.

Service Offering Percentage of Agencies that Offer Service
Publicity planning and execution 83%
Mass media relations 79%
PR consultancy services on retainer 78%
Press conferences/PR event planning and management 76%
Monitoring and clipping 75%
Information gathering and analysis 72%
Sponsored editorial content 69%
Measurement of PR effectiveness 68%
Marketing consulting services 66%
Social media communications using influencers 66%

Source: The Public Relations Society of Japan (PRSJ)

Key Takeaways

It’s no surprise that social media influencer marketing has highlighted one of the fastest-growing areas of Japanese PR, but what’s interesting is how many firms are now offering sponsored editorial content, which requires a decent amount of in-house content creation capabilities.

With more agencies offering marketing consulting services, PR agencies are increasingly going after marketing dollars just as we’ve already seen many advertising agencies going after PR dollars.

What Role Should Digital PR Play in Your Japanese Market Entry Strategy?

Marketing manager reviewing the role of PR agencies in Japan

Global companies entering Japan have traditionally treated public relations as a separate entity, self-contained and worthy of its own separate budget and performance metrics. Today though, with the world of PR, advertising, and digital marketing merging, this is no longer practical.

While companies still understand that good publicity on channels that receive millions of daily viewers is still worth striving for, there are greater demands being placed on measuring the results of investments in PR — and rightly so. If you’re a small brand struggling to get started in Japan, you should know exactly what you’re getting for your money.

Agencies are now forced to utilize more avenues to get your brand’s message in front of your target audience and prove results. Indeed, digital campaigns can now be effectively tracked and measured, enabling clear reporting that demonstrates the exact value a campaign has added.

Digital PR strategists will leverage websites, blogs, social media placements, and more to deliver real-time results across an increasingly sophisticated and connected digital community. And all this isn’t mutually exclusive from traditional PR and media buying on Japanese dailies or TV channels.

They should, in theory, work holistically across your marketing strategy and within the context of your overall sales funnels, where all the content your brand puts out there should be considered part of the customer experience.

If you have a large advertising budget, you might be able to justify more traditional PR brand awareness routes where the goal is to get your name on the lips of as many Japanese people as possible, and seen in the nation’s most popular publications.

However, even if you do have some strong financial backing, when entering a new market and competing with strong domestic players, you’ll need a strategic approach and local support to make sure you’re leveraging the right channels efficiently.

HB Pro Tip: Smaller brands who are new to Japan often find digital-first PR as well as Social & Search PPC less scary and more rewarding. These avenues are also scalable and allow you to go big once you’ve tested the waters with your brand and messages.

SEO and Backlinks

PR agency in Japan analysing online PR performance

One of the biggest reasons PR is still a crucial aspect for succeeding in Japan is the role it plays in improving online traffic and SEO performance. Gaining quality backlinks through the creation and distribution of content with digital PR (either through a distribution service like PR Times or manually) is a tried and tested way of succeeding online. (We’ve done this many times ourselves).

Obtaining links from relevant influential and authoritative websites is no doubt a crucial part of improving organic search engine rankings. By publishing high quality and interesting articles that link to your brand’s site, digital PR can generate traffic from a qualified audience, while also helping to boost rankings on search engine pages.

HB Pro Tip: To get online publications to feature you and give you that all-important backlink, consider shortlisting a selection of highly relevant and popular blog sites, or online news platforms in your sector, and offer to create original content specially made for them. For example, you could frame this as a guest blog written by one of your founders or industry experts. The pickup from Japanese sites will generally be quite good and as long as you’ve done your research into the platform’s audience base, you should be able to get a decent amount of click through to your brand’s page (in addition to a glorious link).

Questions to Ask Prospective PR Agencies in Japan

Company assessing PR agencies in Japan for potential partnership

When reviewing PR agencies in Japan, below are our top questions to ask for making sure you’re getting the right services and support you need.

How Do You Measure ROI?

Event planning, crisis communication, and press release distribution all fall under the umbrella of traditional PR, as does sponsored editorial and social media PR. These all come with different ways of measuring results and when consulting with an agency, make sure you check how your campaigns will be tracked. Firms that have done well to embrace the trend of digital PR should be able to hold themselves accountable and justify its contribution to the bottom-line through diligent reporting.

HB Pro Tip: Many traditional agencies are not yet equipped to offer you the level of data and performance tracking you need, so feel free to keep looking. For some Japanese companies, this concept is still rather foreign.

How Much of the Process is Automated?

PR automation can involve everything from planning and media outreach to measuring and reporting. However, not all aspects of public relations should necessarily be automated. You might be able to deliver releases to hundreds of publications at the click of a button, but is this the best way to target niche publications and audiences with personalized and targeted messages? Probably not.

Admittedly, there are some who feel PR automation goes against the core value offering of the profession, which is to build strong relationships with people. However, it’s also true that automation can be used to handle some of the “busy work” that goes along with the PR role.

Therefore, it’s always important to check how much of the process is automated and how much is being handled by real people with real experience and relationships in the Japanese PR world.

HB Pro Tip: Anything related to content creation should always be handled manually by a marketing / creative professional with a good understanding of the Japanese market!

How Will You Create Newsworthy Content?

Having newsworthy content is important in all PR industries across the world, however, the need to have something that is truly worth sharing is crucial if you want to get any traction in Japan.

You must find ways to create genuine interest that will engage Japanese users and finding a way to do this is one of the most important things you’re paying a PR agency to do. To make sure this is a priority, consider the following sub-questions.

  • How will you create original content that our audience will genuinely care about?
  • How will you adapt our messages, research or content so that it has more relevance to the local market?
  • How will you create content that is “fresh”? (Not a simple translation or reboot of your content for other markets)

How Will You Make Our Brand More Appealing for the Local Market?

Woman on train reviewing promotional content released by PR agencies in Japan

There is an increasing need for PR agencies in Japan to create content today, rather than simply take what you have and distribute it to the right people. Working collaboratively with you, they should be able to support content creation activities that result in you having something that your new Japanese audience will find interesting.

The tastes, interests and mindset of Japanese consumers are different, and people will easily be able to tell if your content is aimed at a Western audience. Things like visuals, data sets, facts and even the way you write your press releases should different to some extent.

Try to determine how well your agency gets this, and what kind of creative and content development capabilities they have in-house. Also, beware not to rely on too heavily campaigns/content that has performed really well in other markets — Japan often requires its own approach.

HB Pro Tip: Make a killer press pack that showcases the best of your brand to Japanese journalists and news companies. As well as adding credibility to your organization, it shows people that you have an approach that is adapted to the local market. Even if you’re actively trying to portray your brand as foreign and “exotic”, your company description, stats and facts, key selling points, and visuals should all be localized for Japan.

Final Tips – Prioritise Original Content!

At Humble Bunny, we’ve embarked on several different types of PR campaigns for clients in multiple sectors, including IG, with its strong international presence but modest Japanese one, and Layette, an innovative Finnish pregnancy app uniquely positioned to offer Japanese parents advice for giving birth.

What we’ve found is that activities backed by genuinely interesting and newsworthy content will always perform the best. The importance of having a systematic and measurable approach is important, but this won’t get you very far if you’re not offering something unique to your potential promoters.

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