Park’s PR blunders could hold back policy efforts

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 11, 2013 - 20:49
  • Updated : Feb 11, 2013 - 20:50

“Again, as previously stated ...” is an oft-heard phrase at President-elect Park Geun-hye’s transition committee’s press room in Samcheong-dong, Seoul.

More often than not, her spokespersons and aides repeat their earlier statements when requested to expand on the committee’s new decisions whose explanations had been rendered insufficient.

Park’s team has been criticized for that kind of “conclusive” ― rather than “explicative” ― style of communication even weeks before her new government takes the helm.
A lack of effective communication with the public has been cited as the biggest stumbling block to her political career, most recently when her Saenuri Party was hit by factional feuds during the early days of the presidential campaign last year. It is now returning to haunt her presidential preparation.

Park’s attempt to minimize speculation by withholding unrefined information may be commendable in theory, but in turn could be branding her government as uncommunicative.

With the administration’s official public relations operations yet to be set up, pundits suggest that it is premature to judge the communication of Park’s future government.

But they say it is time for Park to take a broader examination of her and her predecessors’ PR strategies in order to break the vicious circle in which new governments suffer perpetual decline in public support during their five-year tenure, after failing to keep up with changes in public demands.

“The PR of policies by the government has tended to be ambiguous in its vision or strategy, while resorting to bureaucratic and sporadic methods with unilateral messages in an exhibitive and post-mortem manner, with the focus limited on the superficial output,” said professor Lee Jong-hyuk of the Division of Communication Arts, Kwangwoon University.

“Considering how the government’s communication directly influences policies, as well as the growing demand by the people for government communication, it is imperative to review how the future government should communicate,” he said.

It began with the transition committee lineup announcement by the team’s spokesman Yoon Chang-jung on Dec. 27, when the excitement was palpable at the Saenuri Party upon Park’s presidential win on Dec. 19.

In an apparent attempt to highlight Park’s “security” emphasis, or simply for dramatic effect, Yoon, flanked by Park’s two spokespersons Park Sun-kyu and Cho Yoon-sun, unsealed an envelope containing the names of the presidential transition committee members in front of the cameras and journalists at the Saenuri Party headquarters.

He said the envelope directly came from Park. But after this ostentatious performance, neither Yoon or his team was able to answer questions about the background of the personnel choices, apparently learning the news for the first time themselves. The incident left an unforgettable portrayal of Park’s communication team as closed-off and amateurish.

The stringent mood continued in the transition committee, with chairman Kim Yong-joon warning at the first plenary meeting on Jan. 6, “Anyone who talks about the work here will be held responsible regardless of rank.” It was in line with Park’s principle to avoid confusion by preventing leaks of speculative information.

The secretive image was further magnified by the abrupt resignation of Ewha Womans University professor Choi Dae-seok from the transition committee on Jan. 12. Despite wild speculation about the reasons for his sudden withdrawal, ranging from a family-related problem to his dovish position on North Korea, none of Park’s transition committee members were able to explain.

Criticism surged upon the resignation of Kim Yong-joon as the first prime minister-nominee on Jan. 29. The spiraling allegations of his ethical lapses were seen to accentuate problems with Park’s secluded decision-making style, which had reportedly skipped the formal verification process for fear of leaks. The failure of the Prime Minister’s Office or the transition committee to immediately counter the allegations augmented the doubts over Park’s PR abilities.
President-elect Park Geun-hye speaks during a meeting with the ruling Saenuri Party officials last Wednesday.
(Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Park’s PR team within her secretariat has so far been led by an advertising expert, professor Byun Choo-suk of Kookmin University’s College of Design, rather than a PR specialist.

After the series of mishaps, even ruling party members have begun to voice concern.

“I understand that the (controversy over excessive security) derived from the deeper intention to avoid confusion. It would be appreciated if you could now pay more attention to satisfying the people’s curiosity and questions,” Saenuri Party floor leader Lee Hahn-koo said during a meeting with the transition committee on Jan. 28.

Harsher criticism came from opposition figures.

“(Park’s) top-down, closed-off and authoritarian leadership” is her shortcoming and such an image does not help achieve the unity touted by the president-elect, said former Environment Minister Yoon Yeo-joon during a meeting with Park’s transition committee’s subpanel on people’s unity on Jan. 31.

Yoon, a former conservative politician and mentor, had helped the main opposition Democratic United Party’s presidential candidate Moon Jae-in last year.

“People’s unity comes not by creating a society that is free of conflict, but by well managing and adjusting the conflicts, thereby activating a system where the people’s purpose is gathered together,” Yoon said.

There have been efforts by the transition committee to improve communication, such as by opening a website on Jan. 11 to collect opinions and suggestions. It also disclosed full texts of Park’s remarks made during the committee meetings on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27. But the attempts were considered far short of meeting the demands for reciprocal communication.

“Technically, the transition committee is a model example of taking advantage of its ‘superior’ position over the media and by well-controlling the internal information,” said a communications strategist in Seoul, who wished to remain anonymous.

“But systematically, the presidential transition committee is too substantial an organization that receives high expectations from the people for their spokespersons to merely act as messengers, rather than having in-depth understanding of the contents,” the official said.

Some also pointed to the responsibility of the press for Park’s high-strung security.

“The media must also break away from relying on the so-called ‘quotation journalism’ where the full context is abbreviated for sake of higher news value. While the media vows to clarify the truth, it is difficult to shed light on 100 percent of truth through fragmentary facts, although they may show reality,” said professor Park Ki-chul of the Department of Advertising Public Relations at Kyungsung University.

Park is already seeing sluggish public support ratings.

In a survey of 1,511 adults conducted by Gallup Korea on Jan. 28-Feb. 1, only 52 percent responded that the president-elect was doing a good job. That was a 3-percentage-point decline from the same survey on Jan. 14-18, and close to the 51.55 percent of votes that had went to Park in the Dec. 19 election. It is also much lower than those of preceding presidents, such as Lee, who enjoyed around 70 to 80 percent approval ratings in the same period.

Sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld said communication was a multistep flow where ideas flow from the mass media to opinion leaders, then to the wider population.

While this theory is of the 1940s, the principle still holds true in that direct “top-down” communication by an organization may not be well-received by the public who tend to place more credibility on messages spread by parties that supposedly don’t have anything to gain from the outcome of the communication, such as the media.

Now, with the advent of new media such as social networking services, the customers, or in this case, the public, have grown even smarter, the pundits said.

“When people think of PR, they tend to think of it as the final step of measure, such as by focusing on how to embellish the advertisement and so forth. While such tactics are important, before the tactics need to be strategy, grounds and logic to support it,” said professor Lee Jong-hyuk.

“In reality, when a policy is communicated to the people, there needs to be a preliminary step of forming public opinion. But in our case, such a measure is usually taken only when opposition or controversy is raised.”

Professor Jo Sam-seup of the Department of Public Relations and Advertising, Sookmyung Women’s University, agreed.

“While the past governments met the demands of the times and achieved meaningful accomplishments in state administration, the people tend to remember most of them as ‘failed governments,’ in their image,” he said.

It is because they have overlooked or diverted from the reality where distrust, anxiety and dissatisfaction prevail in Korean society when pushing through their unilateral PR strategies for policies, he explained.

“The society in particular lacks trust toward the leadership of the government. And it is crucial to recover the trust, such as in making personnel decisions,” he said.

All past governments suffered from trust issues due to problems associated with irregularities or personnel decisions, most of which had nothing to do with the actual policies, he said.

“In order to restore trust in a leader’s decisions, integrity, competency and dependability are the key factors that should be considered.”

Professor Lee further suggested a systematic overhaul.

“Communication is not a general term, but an important professional criterion that needs management. Even a slight change in the order of process would lead to side effects,” he said, citing the failed attempt by the Lee Myung-bak administration to introduce a tri-color arrow traffic light system in April of 2011.

The move, which was scrapped within a month due to irrecoverable public opinion against it, is considered one of the standout examples of failed communication.

The idea was to adopt the more internationally-used system of the red-yellow-green alternating arrow from the existing system where an arrow indicating a left flashes only in green.

While the system reportedly took two years to develop, it was pushed without enough preliminary research, and the government’s show of determination to push through the change only aggravated public opinion. It reached a point where the media quipped it as the standout example of Lee Myung-bak’s poor administration style, focusing on how much money would be required for the change.

A public hearing was hastily called, but was considered belated. As the issue spread to political circles, the government eventually disbanded the project on May 16, 2011.

“The government tends to hold public hearings on cases that are controversial. But public hearings should be held in advance. It’s the same as treating a broken bone before scanning it with an X-ray,” Lee said.

In order for communication to work, the government should first share what the problem is, before broadcasting what their policy is, he said.

When applied to reality, where a leader’s style is hard to change, Lee suggested a systematic approach by those that are working under her, such as by enhancing the capabilities and discretion of the internal PR specialists or creating a team for each ministry to be in charge of communication, issue management and surveying public opinion.

He specifically mentioned the now-abolished Government Information Agency as an organization that could cooperate with each ministry and offer strategic suggestions. Despite initial expectations of the body’s revival, Park’s government reorganization plan announced on Jan. 15 had omitted to plan to restore the agency.

The government’s bureaucratic obsession over output, meaning the quantity of PR such as the number of television advertisements, should also be amended as that tendency often leads to “output” but no “outcome,” Lee said.

“This propensity leads to billions of won of budget being concentrated into inefficient campaigns like advertising. This means there needs to be an approach to the public by studying the target audience.”

Park Ki-chul offered an even more fundamental change in the way of thinking for successful public relations between the government and the masses.

“The government’s paradigm should go beyond that of economy and confrontation,” he said.

He cited former President Roh Moo-hyun’s capital relocation project as being based on the regional antagonism, or President Lee Myung-bak’s four river project as ultimately leading to real estate rivalry in the surrounding areas.

President-elect Park’s campaign on “happiness” is also premised on the economic paradigm rather than a philosophy such as by pledging more growth of conglomerates, he noted.

By Lee Joo-hee (