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Letter from South Korea

by Carol HJ Park

Carol is a strategic PR and communications practitioner, skilled in managing corporate communication and crisis management clients, as well as stakeholder relations programs in diverse sectors including finance and consumer brands. In addition to her experience at an agency, Carol also held positions in inhouse roles at Fidelity and New York Life, both in Seoul, overseeing both communications and brand.

PR is a relatively young area here in South Korea, but a very fast-growing one. PR as a service began with the 1988 Summer Olympic Games when South Korea had to outsource the overseas PR of this worldwide sports event to an international agency. Even then, outsourcing of PR services had been much less prevalent since most South Korean companies prefer to guard their public relationships very tightly. The trend is changing with cultural shifts in the workplace that tolerates less personal interaction and cronyism, and with changes in the media landscape affected by the internet and social media.

The communication industry in South Korea will continue to grow and gain in importance with the developments seen in mass media and social media. However, rather than information dissemination (one-way), of greater importance will be engagement (two-way or multi) and credibility, and in that context, the emphasis of the industry will be on PR rather than on advertising. Three keywords that will underscore the development direction of the industry: issue management, depth of information, and time charge. First, as the media and communication environment changes we can expect to see a much greater need for issue management. News is created and reported 24/7 and brand commentary is all over the social media, ready to spread like wildfire at any moment. This speed of dissemination is no longer dictated by a specific time or channel so we just need to be ready. Second, with the development of artificial intelligence, commoditized services such as press releases and daily news clippings are being sought less while in-depth, data-driven content is in greater demand, so we expect to see a rise in agencies offering specialized PR services. This will inevitably impact that way agencies are managed, and we will see a greater shift towards a time charge system much like lawyers or management consultants.

People new to South Korea’s public relations environment should be aware of a few things – Korean Sentiment Law, language, and a Korean reporter’s approach to reporting. Korean Sentiment Law is not an actual law but another term for public sentiment. Neither foreign nor local companies or entities are free from a backlash in this area and can result in consumer boycotts of products or even leads to investigations by regulatory authorities which can have severe legal repercussions. Many times the approach of foreign entities goes against the grain and when things are lost in translation, the situation becomes worse. For the majority of Korean media, text needs to be translated into Korean and include locally relevant contents, while interviews require an interpreter. One important point to remember is that Korean media do not agree to quote checks before publication. They also do not like to feel they have been “left out”; if you invite only a handful of “selected” media to a media briefing, the ones who were not “selected” will let you know how they feel.

Finally, the most important point to be mindful of for people who want to work in communications in Korea is Korean language proficiency. As with any country, clear communication requires a good level of language proficiency. Due to the difference in grammar structure between English and Korean, it is difficult to be fully proficient in both, as it requires a truly dichotomous mindset. Nevertheless, a certain level of proficiency in Korean language will be necessary.