Business Lessons on Candlelit Vigils
When the first "mad cow" demonstration took place, I, like most foreign business people, was taken completely off guard. Literally stumbling upon it when I walked by the Cheongyecheon Plaza.
During later demonstrations, I spent some eight or so hours wandering among the demonstrators, observing what was happening. I eventually realized that my initial suspicions were not as well grounded. I had suspected the Korea Teachers Union as being the instigators in moving their political agenda on to the streets, since they and similar interest groups had taken multiple drubbings at the national elections ballot boxes.
While the teachers may have supported these demonstrators, their students in adolescent disregard for authority made it clear that they, the students, and not the teachers were behind these demonstrations. The students took pride that this was a political happening they had pulled together by the Internet and SMS messaging. While sympathetic NGOs may have donated the temporary stages, lighting and sound systems, the first demonstrations were largely spontaneous.
Later, we witnessed these anti-mad cow/anti-President Lee Myung-bak demonstrations morph into what seemed more like street festivals where older students and even young families with toddlers in strollers were commonplace. The same uncompromising slogans were being shouted and the same strident signs were ubiquitous. But now, t-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia were on sale by young entrepreneurs. Internet reporters with micro camcorders and sound equipment were also in abundance with on-the-spot Internet web bureaus consisting of laptops and connected equipment orchestrating as much as ABC Wide World of Sports may have done a generation ago, but at a tiny fraction of the cost and effort.
So, fundamentally, why is all of this happening? A few weeks into the demonstrations, a bunch of us former Peace Corps Volunteers with a collective 150 years of professional work experience in Korea, stood by scratching our heads, dumbfounded. For me to come up with an explanation may be presumptive, but as a columnist, I'm going to give it my best shot.
First, let's start out with the most common explanation ― the immaturity of Korea's genuine democracy. Korea is one of the more democratic nations in the world ― much more so than Japan and in many ways more than most of Asia. But while Korea has seen rapid economic growth since the early 1960's, real democracy can be traced back to only 1987 when a revised constitution made this all possible. In other words, there is roughly a quarter century gap between Korea's economic and political miracles. Most Koreans have enjoyed the rewards of true civil freedoms without being educated in the responsibilities and expectations commonly found in mature democracies. "Democracy" in many Koreans' mind is the right to safely take to the streets at the drop of a hat to protest any real or imagined issue.
Well, that sort of explains matters, but there are other fundamental issues below the surface.
There is han ― the social phenomenon of Korean society where frustrated, unresolved injustices of all sorts generate small and large frustrations among individuals and groups. This is one of the keystones of the Korean psyche and any opportunity to assuage one's han is a very strong draw for many Koreans.
In this case, what may be the widely held han in these demonstrations? The dangers of American beef? Hardly. The real gist is against the current administration. And the more I take in what is being said on the streets and what is being empathized by many non-demonstrating Koreans, I really don't think this angst is being directed personally against Pres. Lee so much as the entire Establishment of this nation. Lee Myung-bak in many Koreans' eyes represents an established political-economic order. Many middle class citizens feel themselves in danger of sliding into the lower classes as the economic divide between rich and poor widens ― and as the middle class sees more of its members moving down rather than up.
How real or imagined these fears may be brings us to the next point, of which businesses need to be aware.
While pundits and others may celebrate the explosion of information over the Internet, I have serious second thoughts. Consider when Americans such as I were kids. We normally didn't read the newspapers, but we would often sit through the Evening News telecasts from one of the three national broadcasters. These half-hour news summaries generalized their content to meet most people's common interests. As a result, we kids had to sit through some pretty "boring" reports on topics that only later we may develop interest in. In other words, whether we liked it not, we were given a broad, general understanding of the world.
Consider today where most young people get their news. It is the Internet, of course. The news may come via web sites, but usually it is from special interest blogs and email messages with hot links to special focus web sites. In Korea, most young people eschew newspaper sites since they are deemed "conservative" ― but I might add, these newspapers and their web sites provide general news.
Some media observers describe the "multi-polarization" of Internet-dependent populations where there is less interest in common, general perspectives and more attention to news customized to serve preconceived notions and prejudices. The obvious danger is this polarization often acts as a "dumbing down" of populations as it only interprets events through increasing narrower focused lenses. This spoon-fed news fosters less critical thinking. Cyber news is often vetted to meet the criteria that make up the narrowing editorial controls, often inserting unsubstantiated editorial opinion.
As a result, we have seen non-critical thinking running cyber rampant in China against international support of the Tibetans and illogical Korean mass opinion fueled by fear fantasies of American beef imports.
But it is important to recognize that from these young, Internet users' viewpoints, most of these anonymous, cyber messages seem fairly rationale within the narrow, non-critical constructs of their media sources and their own individual thinking.
From a business perspective, the liabilities are obvious. Public perception is becoming increasingly volatile. Public relations is becoming ever more critical and complicated.
To give a hypothetical case study, say you are an executive with a petroleum products company. You have no practical say on imported oil prices. You are constrained by prior existing contracts to deliver products within certain price ranges. You cannot simply pass on the raw material cost hikes to the market if you are to move products. In other words, your gross sales turnover numbers may skyrocket while your net profits may plummet. In spite of appearances, your company may soon be facing major red numbers on your P&L sheet.
Now, imagine your company suddenly becomes the symbol of corporate greed for "milking" the average citizen due to your price hikes. Your company's name could be substituted with Pres. Lee's name in future street movements. What can you do?
Preliminarily, it is important to engage in corporate citizenship that is not only recognized by traditional media. Positive contributions to society need to be commonly known on blogs where more and more young people turn to find their information. Furthermore, should the cyber tide turn against your company, it may be wise to fight fire with fire and to employ young netizens to present your side of the story over the Internet at various blogs and bulletin boards. Finally, you may even wish to consider setting up your own company's blog site that fairly recognizes your antagonists' concerns and answers them as honestly as possible.
It's a whole brave new world out there. Wired Korea may well be offering lessons for not only Korea-based companies but also for offshore businesses as our planet stumbles forward once more.
Tom Coyner, a long-term resident in Korea, runs consulting firm, Soft Landing Korea. Coyner can be reached on softlandingkorea.com.