One thing missing in G20 preps
By Oh Young-jin
President Lee Myung-bak is giving everything he has to ensure that the upcoming G20 Seoul Summit is a success. But his all-out endeavors miss one important point either from his mistake or that of his public relations team ― the lack of effort to present him in a coherent way or, simply put, an image-making initiative.
It may not be too late to limit the damage by making a couple of adjustments.
Here are a couple of reasons why Lee’s image-making efforts both for the domestic audience and the international community is an important way of putting the G20 summit to the best use for the purpose of illustrating Korea’s advancement to the ranks of developed nations.
First, ask people how they see President Lee and it is likely that the answers will be mixed.
To his Korean critics, Lee is seen as a leader whose agenda is driven by economic growth rather than distribution, often taking sides with haves at the expense of have-nots. The likelihood is that Lee’s latest call for a “fair society” can be seen as a political ploy to lure the disenchanted majority.
Knowledgeable foreigners are bound to share some of this domestic criticism, while a broader segment of members of the international community have to depend on anecdotes for their impressions.
French people are likely to think of Lee as a good salesman who has taken away a billion-dollar nuclear power plant deal in the United Arab Emirates away from them. The likelihood is that most Europeans don’t have much knowledge about him.
American politicians see a friend in Lee in confronting a rogue Pyongyang regime, while it is hard to blame the Chinese, if they are still wondering whether he will be a friend or a foe.
A small dose of strategic ambiguity may be good for any leader, giving him more leeway to maneuver, but, in the case of Lee, the leader of a country that is “graduating” from its developing stage, it is pivotal to present him in a systematic way so as to leave as little room for misunderstanding as possible.
Then, what is the best systematic way of presenting Lee to the public, both domestic and international?
For instance, unfortunately, a significant portion of Koreans tend to believe that Lee is taking the G20 summit as a personal trophy achievement in his presidential legacy. It is important to dispel this public myth of sorts and the responsibility to do so falls under the jurisdiction of his PR team.
There can be two approaches Lee’s press handlers can take. The best way is getting their boss out in front and having him explain directly or indirectly to the public the importance of the G20 summit to the nation. He can appear in a television talk show and talk to the Cheong Wa Dae press corps in a news conference.
His PR team can also brief the press or have close aides speak about how President Lee is making personal efforts to prepare for the G20 summit and why he is putting so much time and energy into the preparations. Simply put, it is important to make the public feel the President up close and personal and help them share the sense of the goal with him. This aims at making Lee look less aloof from public concerns ― a criticism Lee, as well as other leaders, have commonly been subjected to.
In other words, Dr. Sakong Il and his blue-ribbon team is doing a great job turning the domestic nonevent into the significant international gallery affair that it should be, but there is a part that only President Lee can play.
Equally important is how to project Lee internationally, taking advantage of the global attention drawn to Korea for the summit.
A slightly different approach than one used for the domestic audience is needed for this. Lee appearing shoulder to shoulder with global leaders may be a major PR boost to the domestic public but, to international audience, this photo op will likely make him one of the lesser-known among leaders of the participating 20 leading countries.
Giving interviews with international newspapers or TV stations would be a good start but they will likely prove to be anecdotal or limited. Thus, there arises a need to mount a consistent effort to let the public know more about Lee not just in connection with his policies but for his philosophy behind them. This is aimed at “giving the leader character” in the eyes of the international audience, who are less likely to follow Korean affairs and its leaders. Bear in mind that a leader with a public image is better remembered than a leader without it.
At this crucial juncture where Korea now stands, we need such a leader with international stature. The G20 summit provides such a chance for Lee to become one. Just think of U.S. President Obama or French President Sarkozy and it is obvious what benefits having such a recognizable leader entails. A well-known leader is a great advantage in the global village where all its denizens compete for their self-interest in the name of noble causes for the world.
There is no need to be shy about self-promotion when it comes to the head of state because often his interest identifies with national interests. The opportunity shouldn’t be missed.