In our opinion: Ben Harding talks culture and the mysteries of the Far East

11 Feb 2014 by Sarah Leembruggen.

Tell us a bit about Mizuho.
I joined the European operations base of Mizuho International in March 2013.
Mizuho International was formed in 2000 following the merger of three large Japanese banks. Functioning under a single umbrella and establishing seamless and unified strategies with a clear direction did not, however, happen overnight. These three powerhouses all came into the merger with their own set of unique and often conflicting complexities that needed addressing. It has taken the best part of a decade to consolidate and capitalize on the international capabilities of three very different institutions to form one of the largest financial services providers in the world today.

It is little known here but very large and well respected in Japan. Can you put that into context for us?
Mizuho is not yet recognized as the global powerhouse that it is in Asia. I believe this stems in part from certain cultural tendencies. Business pivots on the decisions made by the collective. Processes can be long-winded and often generate a very measured and cautious approach. It will take time for Mizuho to push the boundaries and put themselves in the global spotlight. Over the past year, we have made a very conscious effort to be more open to collaboration with different regions with an aim to expand into Europe and the US. There has been more focus on brand building and advertising to raise our profile. We hope that Mizuho will become a more familiar name across the globe.

What level of PR function was in place when you arrived?
There were just a couple of people responsible for Comms, one for internal and one for external. There was not a particularly clear strategy in place or a direction behind it. In short, I would say it was very limited. We are now aiming to ensure that everyone in the London business understands what we are trying to achieve. Our vision is to instill desire, drive and passion.

Did you have to learn a lot about the Japanese culture and cultural expectations before considering how to develop the Comms piece over here?
Absolutely. I have been very surprised by the cultural differences on a number of occasions. The Japanese view the PR aspect of their brand very differently to the way we do in Europe. They take a very defensive stance to PR and operate with an extreme degree of caution in their attempt to talk to the media. They are much more comfortable to stay under the radar and not have to get out there and push the brand. The focus is much more on building a proper consensus and going through all the due processes with an eye to the long-term benefits. Their style of operating is much slower and more conservative. These were all things I had to keep in mind.

What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say learning where there is a genuine appetite for change and where to hold back. I have found that it is hard to break the mould where there is a firm consensus already in place, but if you can identify the areas where there is a demand for change, you can be pleasantly surprised by the willingness to move things forward.

How have you motivated your stakeholders to embrace the changes you have implemented?
By making sure that I talk to everyone and spread the net as widely as possible. Due to the consensual nature of business, it is not enough to talk to just one or two people. It is important to identify who all the stakeholder groups are and make sure they are communicated to at the appropriate level. I have also found that it is more effective to present a completed project in order for it to engage interest. Again, I think this is a manifestation of the cultural tendency to err on the side of caution and make sure that all the details have been mapped out before anything can receive due consideration.

What is your definition of great PR?
Trying to ensure that there are as few surprises as possible. Of course it is not always possible to have complete control over output but it is possible to manage expectations. Make the ground rules crystal clear, do the appropriate level of planning, make sure you can envisage the end result and manage any risks up front.

For more information on Mizuho International visit the website.

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