Public Relations in Korea: A review of cultural and historical influences

6 years, 6 months ago


Perceptions of Korea have changed radically in recent years as its commercial powerhouses and pop culture have increasingly come to the fore internationally. But the evolution of PR in the country still has some way to go due in part to the strict hierarch

There was a time not so long ago when many people around the world only knew Korea as a poor, war-ravaged country and one that was popularized as the backdrop for the long running, American drama, "M.A.S.H."
The war-ravaged country has now been replaced by an industrial powerhouse ranked 15th among global economies, 4th in Asia and the country’s capital now sits 16th among all global cities for its projected ability to attract business, skilled work and tourism in 2025*. When media wrote of Korea in the early 80s especially when her more dominant neighbor Japan was gaining momentum with impressive tech brands and savvy marketing, words such as ‘lemon’ or ‘discount’ were used more often to describe South Korean products. Today, Brand Korea is now the world’s largest producer of flat-screen televisions and smartphones and its home brands such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai are now represented by products that are seen as high-value, quality-intact and consumer-friendly.
Back in the late 90s, the Korean government worried itself with cultural exports especially after opening up to Japan but Hallyu, the Korean wave, has put Korea on the map especially across East and Southeast Asia. The cultural phenomenon has now evolved to a worldwide scale fronted by Korean music (think PSY and the beat of "Gangnam Style"), cosmetic brands, cuisine and clothing. Today, Korea is, well, everywhere. 
Who would have thought that in less than 50 years such a transformation would take place? There has been much debate and analysis on this topic, specifically how the government and business colluded to build the foundation for technological advancement, education and urbanization.  While there is no denying the influence of such private-public partnership in Korea’s globalization, the interesting evaluation comes to the role of public relations. How has Korea embraced PR and in such adoption, how much has PR shaped Korea and its conglomerates? More importantly, what role will PR play in the future of Korea? 
Relationships are king in Korean PR
During the Japanese colonial period, Koreans relied on newsletters to share information on Japanese movements or to organize protests. Over time, such newsletters helped shape the earliest newspapers. Soon after the end of World War II and up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the government exercised considerable control and surveillance over the media but as Korea globalized under an export-driven economy, the Korean media also experienced independence from government control.  Much of Korea’s history and evolution has worked in tandem with the media and the role of the journalist, and its specific standing in society, has been on par with white collar professionals such as physicians or lawyers. Even today, while media has been hampered by the rise of free, online outlets, Korea remains one of those markets where offline, traditional media are the most credible and influential.
Public relations grew out of necessity in Korea because as companies started to compete, they also needed the influential media to tell their stories.  Building the relationships, maintaining the relationships and entertaining the journalists defined public relations in Korea.  Master narrative development, strategic planning and crisis and issue management were non-existent. Even today, companies operating in Korea are not so interested in the high value disciplines of public relations but more so on control of the story especially in terms of guaranteeing positive coverage. In their view, the control of the story is a result of the relationships that are being managed and as such, PR is a means to ensure a positive outcome.  
Public Relations tied to the ‘rise and fall’ of Korean multinationals  
The real change in Korean public relations started with globalization of the country under the era of the ‘88 Olympics and the entry of multinationals with their demands for marketing, advertising and public relations. The formal start of Burson-Marsteller, in fact, was after the Olympics and at this time, foreign companies also started to see Korea as part of their global expansion.   
As foreign companies looked towards entry into Korea, the country was also adopting an ‘internationalization’ policy under President Kim Young Sam in the early to late ‘90s. It was at this time that Korean companies started to make successful inroads into foreign markets.  Korea was ranked 11th among all global economies and gained entry into the OECD in 1997. Brand Korea, led by the successful cohesion between corporates and government, was just starting to find its feet until the IMF crash in 1997.
With the IMF, the government and companies were forced to reassess their strategies, their governance and the past private-public partnerships. It is at this time that Korean companies evaluated their old ways and began to rely on advice and counsel from consultants. The "Korean way" that may have worked in the past had become irrelevant, requiring greater adaptation and reliance on third party consultants.  Not surprisingly, this was the period when PR firms thrived and grew in number. 
The review of Korea’s history is important as it provides context to how PR is viewed in market and by Korean companies.  Every one of the top Korean companies today now relies on the services of international PR firms and has vast teams of in-house communications professionals to manage both domestic and foreign media and stakeholders.  Yet, as mentioned earlier, how to engage media and how to leverage PR is still not well understood, particularly since PR is seen as a means to control the story. 
The problem with such thinking is that, while this may work in Korea, such exchange cannot be reflected in the global media landscape.  Media is reliable as an independent third party and so media needs to be informed, educated and convinced that the story will be of interest to their readers. It is this dynamic that is difficult for Korean companies to embrace and the consultancies that are hired must expend much energy and effort in educating around this critical dynamic.  While the likes of the already well-established Korean companies such as LG and Samsung have taken on more advanced means of PR engagement, there is still room for improvement.
The public relations exchange can never be limited to a one-way method, but this is hard to understand for Korean corporate cultures still characterized by strict hierarchies of command and conservative approaches. Harold Burson said most recently in an interview with one of Korea’s leading newspapers, "One tip for success (for Korean companies) is to take good use of ‘totality’ and ‘history’ in the global market. In the case of Samsung, the focus is on advertising the advantages of each cell phone but the company should also build appreciation for the success story of the Galaxy series. When it comes to Hyundai Motors, advertising of products should be connected to the corporate history narrative and the CEO’s success."** While PR has definitely gained greater recognition in market and by Korean companies, there is still a very limited view of how public relations can build a brand and in particular, how public relations can sit front and center in some instances but also be embedded and integrated into over-arching corporate communications.
Future of Public Relations for Korean MNCs
Public relations in Korea has evolved in many ways along the same tract as the country’s development: fast-paced, reactive vs. proactive and insular to external-focus.  In view of the country’s history, the government and business worked together in building the country from a poor economy into one of the world’s most robust, industrialized nations and Brand Korea was in many ways founded on this partnership.
However, with the opening of borders, the country also became vulnerable to international standards and learned the hard way that Korea needed to shape up practices and regulations in order to take a place at the global level.  As the government followed the advice and counsel of experts and outside consultants, Korean MNCs turned to the global marketplace for expansion and when doing so, found themselves tasked with defining their strategic focus and brand value.  Today, Korea represents one of the most dazzling economic and cultural forces and each day highlights a new milestone: election of the country’s first female President, #1 globally in terms of smartphone users, top tourist destination for Asians and the list goes on and on.
Brand Korea will continue to be led by the endeavors of its corporate entities, with continued support from the government. There will be a greater focus on fostering further R&D and SME-global expansion and acceptance of its expanded global role. However, the challenge now will be in how the country and companies can move beyond the one-hit product or celebrity wonder and embrace strategic engagement, long-term investment and more ‘listening’ versus ‘talking’ in the PR exchange.  
If control is to be extended, control should also be given. In this case, less control should be held by the corporations and more control should be extended to global consumers who now hold a greater stake in the shaping of Brand Korea. 
* The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2013
** "Five Questions with Harold Burson, Founder of Burson-Marsteller", Chosun Ilbo, June 22, 2013
Thought Leader Profile
Margaret Key is Market Leader, Korea at Burson-Marsteller. She utilizes her bicultural Korean-American background to help multinational companies communicate in Korea while also providing counsel to Korean companies expanding on the global front.
Prior to joining B-M Korea, Margaret was the Managing Director of Edelman Japan as well as the regional director of healthcare based in Hong Kong. She too served as the General Manager of Edelman Korea and worked in Korea for over 8 years prior to a return in 2010. 
As the healthcare practice leader at Edelman, Margaret worked across various communication disciplines including marketing, disease education campaigns, online promotion, advisory board development as well as medical professional training. She developed Korea’s first KOL- focused coaching program and has trained over 300 medical professionals. Margaret’s strategic counsel, creative platform design and understanding of the Korean media landscape have been instrumental in supporting greater visibility and promotion of clients. With a deep understanding of the stakeholder base in Korea from media to government, Margaret has been able to support a diverse range of clients including Ford, Danone, Gucci, Bayer and LG. She has also facilitated a number of executive training workshops focused on message development, media engagement and crisis management. 
Prior to joining Edelman, Margaret served as the Assistant Manager of Hyundai Development Company’s Overseas IR team. Margaret started her career with Hyundai Motor Company by supporting the company’s first Overseas Public Relations team. 
Margaret obtained her Master’s of Arts degree in international relations/political science from Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and Duke University. She holds a B.A. from Wofford College. She is also an adjunct professor at Chungang University’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations and serves as an advisory board member of Korea’s Presidential Council of National Branding. She also worked from October – December 2012 as the foreign spokesperson for the Saenuri political party under Park Geun Hye, Korea’s first first female President.

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The Author

Margaret Key

Margaret Key is Market Leader, Korea at Burson-Marsteller. She utilizes her bicultural Korean-American background to help multinational companies communicate in Korea while also providing counsel to Korean companies expanding on the global front.

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