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Bosses shouldn’t fear foreign media

By Tom Coyner

JoongAng Daily

May 26, 2010


Korean firms are missing a golden chance when they refuse to meet with foreign journalists.


Have you ever harbored particularly good or bad thoughts about another country?  Have you considered why you may have those feelings?  To answer such questions, marketers attempt to analyze why and how people perceive other countries under the banner of “nation branding.”


Bimonthly Chairman Yoon-Dae Euh leads the International Advisory Forum of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding in considering a wide array of issues on how Korea is viewed and how Korea can improve its image through practical and concrete measures.  The Council is made up of international business leaders and diplomats.  Under Chairman Euh’s expert guidance, the discussion is productive with some very good ideas being turned into concrete measures.


But as impressive the Council’s may be, participating bureaucrats may be missing major opportunities in enticing Korea’s private sector to better participate in nation branding.  This matter has come up in Council discussions, but there has been a natural tendency for this government-sponsored group to look for a government solution.


To get to the point, more than from government-sponsored media campaigns and initiatives, people base their opinions of exporting countries by the products they daily use at work and home.  Slogans and videos are ephemeral, but phones, automobiles, televisions, refrigerators, ships, banking, etc. are items taken quite seriously, since peoples’ lives depend upon them.  If these products are of high quality, the reputation of country of manufacture soars.  If the products fail due to shoddy design or manufacture, the country of origin takes a hit.


But of course, it’s not that simple.  There is a lag between the time a country starts getting its produce “right” and the time its consumers start adequately appreciating the products’ true value.  As such, the country’s image and its products are discounted compared to other nations until when the nation brand achieves its fair value.


One would think that Korea’s corporate public relations departments would be working overtime to get the updated story out and abroad.  With a few major exceptions, however, this is not at all the case.  


I have heard foreign PR professionals, embassy public affairs officials and international journalists complain how difficult it is to get interviews with Korean corporate top executives.


This is unfortunate.  Korean exporters have incredibly positive stories to tell that could increase Korean products’ ownership pride among consumers and attract new customers overseas.  In other words, international media has the capacity to raise Korea’s overall image.


Recently, there have been excellent feature stories about Hyundai Motor in Forbes magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.  The full-length articles accurately explained how Hyundai Motor is the rising star of the North American automobile market and how Korean work attitudes have been a competitive advantage.


After reading these articles, can you imagine how you may feel as a Hyundai owner or if you’re thinking of a Hyundai as your next automobile? And even if you aren’t in the car market, upbeat stories from independent news sources are likely to give you a more positive feeling about Korea.


Recently I met with Korean and foreign reporters to explore why it is so difficult for the foreign press to get good interviews from Korean companies.  The consensus was that Korean companies have become difficult to approach over the past eight years due to company growth with enlarged bureaucracies.


I suspected that dealing with English-speaking journalists was a key obstacle, but I discovered Korean journalists working for foreign media have not been any more successful.  If there is a group doing “better,” it may Korean media journalists who participate in company-sponsored press events that lack Q&A sessions.  But closely controlled PR activities leave foreign journalists with little credible material to send to their overseas editors.


Speaking about this with a former international PR manager of a major Korean manufacturer, I learned the hardest concept for many Korean executives to understand is the trade-off between information control and message credibility.  That is, the more one controls the message, the less believable that message is likely to be.  The trick is to have the confidence to loosen media control to the point that the message is credible – that is, not easily dismissed as corporate propaganda.


Fear and ignorance, however, hallmark many top Korean executives’ thinking when dealing with international media.  First of all, conducting an interview in English, even with an interpreter, can be a minefield.  Second, there is an even larger fear that something negative may be reported given foreign  news media are not so influenced by Korean advertising.


But the situation need not be so dire. For example, very few Korean executives have benefitted from media training as is frequently the case with western executives.


Furthermore, Korean corporate PR offices are generally staffed by junior managers who lack decision-making authority and are often two, three or even more levels removed from the executive suite.  As such, they rarely think strategically.  Nor do they have their senior executives’ confidence.  Accordingly, these PR departments play it ultra safe and conservative.


To give you a perspective, consider this true story.  A Korean company’s international PR manager went to his COO informing him Bloomberg wished to run a story on the company.  The boss’ response was, “Who is Bloomberg?”  After learning who they were, the executive decided he didn’t wish to be bothered with an interview.  When the PR manager explained that if the COO didn’t give the interview, Bloomberg would get their story from industry analysts.  The COO retorted, “Industry analysts don’t really understand our business!”  To which the hapless PR manager replied, “That’s just the point.”  In the end, Bloomberg got their story second hand from industry analysts and the Korean company lost an opportunity worth hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars.  Meanwhile, the nation’s brand lost the chance to upgrade its value.


The good news is Hyundai Motor and some other companies are catching on.  I understand the Hyundai Motor international PR head is a foreigner who has relatively easy access to the executive suite.  Being a foreigner may give him that access, but of course, nationality need not be prerequisite.


But getting back to the government’s role in nation branding, consider Ollie Wästberg, Swedish Institute director, as quoted in Public Diplomacy magazine. “Frankly, IKEA is doing more for the image of Sweden than all governmental efforts combined.” He continued, “That might be a sad statement coming from a governmental official tasked with enforcing the brand of Sweden.”


Given all of this, Korean companies and products are Korea’s day-to-day ambassadors.  But simply selling Korean products may not be enough given foreign competitors’ executive media-savvy skills.  The Internet’s shorter news cycles require getting credible stories out to foreign markets sooner and more often.  If Korean companies’ executives can learn how to effectively work with the international media while fostering PR executives with strategic message decision-making authority, both the companies’ and the nation’s brands are bound to improve.


The government’s role may be to sponsor or encourage international media training for key corporate executives.  But be it government’s urging or corporate initiative, Korean companies for the sake of the nation’s brand need to let Korea’s good news circulate more freely around the world.


Tom Coyner is a member of the International Advisory Forum of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding and president of Soft Landing Consulting.



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