PR tips for foreign CEOs
A Korean CEO stationed in London is to be interviewed by a prominent British newspaper. When the reporter arrives at the CEO’s residence, he finds him decked out in the black trousers and scarlet tunic of a Grenadier Guardsman. After mixing the reporter a gin and tonic, the CEO rushes into the kitchen to finish cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. During lunch, and between satisfied slurps of Earl Grey, the Korean holds forth on his passion for traditional British culture. After lunch, he drags the hack out into the back garden for an invigorating game of lawn cricket.
Does this strike you as farcical?
It should. Yet foreign businesspersons in Korea have a habit of doing exactly this, albeit with their attire and habits transferred to the domestic cultural milieu.
When foreign CEOs are featured in Korean newspapers and magazines ― either as interviewees or as Op-Ed guest columnists ― you might expect them to discuss the business climate in Korea or other matters that fall within their purview.
A recent perusal of a major economic newspaper finds foreign CEOs discoursing on ``The Future of Hallyu,” ``The Power of the Korean Female,” ``Dreams Come True in Korea,” and that old chestnut, ``The Beauty of Korean Temples.”
There’s more. When photographed, these types won’t be seen wearing a suit; instead they drape themselves in silken hanbok. They don’t work ― heaven forbid ― in offices; they prefer to labor in ``cultural spaces” brimming with faux antiques and calligraphy scrolls.
I am not suggesting that all who undertake such indulgences are fluffers: An American pal of mine wears nothing but hanbok, and another chum dwells in a hanok surrounded by Olde Coreana. But on the whole, I am unconvinced.
Who is behind these ``I Luv Korea” antics? It may be the CEOs or their PR advisors, but the tendency is strongly encouraged by vernacular media: In this newly-rich land, a strain in the national character claws, desperately, for international recognition, respect and approbation.
As a reporter, I am often asked by locals why I don’t write more good news, or more stories on ``Korean culture.” One could tell such questioners that a firewall blazes between PR and journalism, but the simple answer is, ``No news is good news.” Or, alternatively: ``Bad news is news.”
Let’s be frank: If Kim Jong-il did not exist, the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club would be even smaller than it currently is. (And your columnist would not be hungry and depressed ― his customary status ― but starving and desperate. I digress.)
Granted, I have penned a range of stories on successful businesses, hallyu, traditional cultural practices and personalities and so on but I have written a great deal more on North Korean provocations, confrontational politics, corporate scandals.
Perhaps I should make more of an effort. A former colleague, asked the above question at a journalistic forum, replied that his news organization both wrote, and wanted to write, more ``good news” about Korea. He has since departed journalism, but is making a very comfortable living, thank you, as the PR spokesperson for a major international organization.
So what is a foreign CEO parachuted into the ``unique Korean business environment” to do?
Said CEO will, no doubt, encounter head office ``communications professionals” who insist on ``strategy before tactics.” These killjoys will tell you that PR is all about preparing ``key messages,” utilizing ``targeted media” and other ``information dissemination platforms” to deliver ``differentiated communications,” working ``seamlessly” with ``fellow marketing professionals” (market researchers, ad men, snake-oil salesmen) to generate ``360 degree brand visibility;” monitoring media and social networks, ``responding to feedback” and thereby, ``mastering the buzz”.
Well, my CEO friend, don’t be swayed by these Korea-ignorant knaves!
Here, instead, are ``Five Tips for PR Success in Korea.” These are your priorities ahead of perception research, media training, crisis communications preparation or other tiresome tasks.
(1) Head down to a tailor and get yourself a hanbok knocked up. But avoid that daring pink and purple combo! Best to go for a scholarly black or dark blue, you Confucian gentleman, you.
(2) Select a Korean dish you are fond of. (Not kimchi, please. Everyone says kimchi.) Have your PR crew prepare a bulleted document of key points about it, so you can discourse on its history, folklore, ingredients and preparation methods.
(3) Learn to cook that dish, or ― the less time-consuming option ― have your PR staff arrange photographs of yourself pretending to cook it. (If your family can take part in the charade, all the better!) Further photos are then required of you cheerfully lapping it up. Work on that cheesy grin! Get those thumps up!
(4) Identify a few Korean beauty spots ― temples are ideal, though unoriginal ― you can rhapsodize about. However much the Missus insists on Hong Kong or Hawaii for the next long weekend, dissuade her: You need to make at least one intra-Korean trip per year, with photos to prove it. Haeundae Beach is pleasant if you fancy a paddle with several million locals, and don’t worry, your resident PR Photoshop artiste can sketch in a six-pack if you are sensitive about the paunch spilling over your Speedos.
(5) Ensure that your company runs at least one corporate social responsibility program to ``Spread Korean Culture” internationally. When Head Office complains that they don’t do this in any other market globally, tell them, ``You don’t understand Korea’s unique business environment!” Remember: Your job is to educate there about here.
But none of the above has anything to do with your core business, you say? Your job here is to make profits not play at silly publicity stunts, you insist?
You arrogant, pin-striped fool! You don’t get it, do you?
Mark my words. In Korea, it is emotion, not rationality that counts. When Armageddon is unleashed, when your unionists are chanting that your firm is ``Focused on Money/Not Contributing to Korea!” when a nationalistic media is breathing fire and brimstone; and when stern-faced regulators are smashing down your door and impounding your hard drives, then you will be thanking me for these goodwill-generating tips.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based author and reporter. His latest book is ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”