Women rule on front-lines of luxuryLee Seong-ju draws a dot on a map that shows the entrance of the hotel ballroom.
“This is where I should be standing,” says Ms. Lee, a public relations manager at Clinique Korea. “It’s best that I stand here,” she repeats. “That way I can shake hands with everyone coming in or going out.”
Preparing for a promotional event this month, Ms. Lee’s manner of speaking is fast and serious. Perhaps that is what it takes to sell a bottle of 30,000 won ($25) face lotion.
Ms. Lee, 32, joined Clinique, ELCA Korea, three years ago. ELCA is a cosmetics enterprise that includes Estee Lauder, Bobby Brown and Aveda. Before her job at Clinique, she was a public relations representative for Christian Dior, and before that she did the same thing at Esprit. In fact, during the nine years since she graduated from college with a degree in Arabian studies, Ms. Lee has worked in public relations for major foreign luxury brands, armed with an attitude she refers to as “hungry mentality.”
Working as a public relations specialist for a luxury brand offers certain benefits, whether the person is a man or woman. There is the glamour associated with high-end merchandise and the opportunity to meet fashion’s highrollers. But for those people who are more into buying luxury goods than selling them the job often ends abruptly and harshly.
“You sit across from some women who seem to have got into this business because the benefits include discounts on merchandise,” says Oh Eun-ju, a public relations manager for Bluebell Korea, whose luxury brand imports include Moschino of Italy to Davidoff cigars. “It pleases them to know that they are close to the brand they’ve always loved. They take pride in the brand they are selling.”
Fantasy is one thing that draws many young women into the business, says Oh So-rim of Gucci Korea. “We don’t work on a desk made of gold or have diamond studs adorning our computer monitors, but people think we do,” says Ms. Oh. “They think we build powerful networks, get dressed up and lunch with journalists at fancy restaurants and that’s all we do. It’s because of this concern that when we hire new assistants I try to describe the job accurately to young Korean women who think this is an industry full of glamour.”
Lee Yon-kyung, 28, a public relations manager for Audi Korea, voices a similar view.
“It’s an industry that demands a thorough understanding of character analysis,” says Ms. Lee, who has held positions at Novotel Ambassador Hotel, Master Card International and the public relations firm, Merit/Burson- Marsteller. “You are mistaken if you consider public relations a business that simply uses a network and media to promote merchandise.”
The primary task of public relations specialists is to persuade. Often the target of the persuasion is journalists, and the goal is to convince them to write an article that looks at a product in a favorable light. A public relations specialist must be able to approach a product from different angles, seeing it from the perspective of the manufacturer and the consumer, and bring the two together. They could be called cultural facilitators or matchmakers. In this case, helping potential partners meet involves a keen understanding of social trends and the ability to discern where the real value of a product lies. And then there is the grunt work of pumping out story ideas for media coverage.
These are not easy tasks, especially if you consider that the average public relations specialist in Korea receives up to 150 phone calls on a busy day. Included in this already fat portfolio are arranging corporate sponsorships for advertisers and planning major launching events two or three times a year to forecast sales for the upcoming season. In between they find time to proofread company newsletters, respond to inquiries, lunch with journalists and brainstorm ideas with the company’s marketing team.
Most local luxury brand companies have small public relations staffs -- often three employees or less -- which leads to a frenetic existence.
“You drain an awful lot of energy running around, doing miscellaneous work for other people, because most inquiries or phone calls that come in regularly are transferred to the PR division first if it’s not for a certain department,” says Ms. Kang. “Yet there is a sentiment within the company that if sales are strong the marketing department deserves the credit. When sales drop the public relations people are responsible.”
Complaints about demands on time inevitably lead to the question: What about family?
“I’ve had three male colleagues during my career in public relations,” says Ms. Lee of Clinique Korea. “You can guess why so many women in the business are single.”
In Korea, women make up 90 percent of public relations managers for luxury brands and besides living single lives, they have other things in common. Their age roughly ranges between the mid 20s to early 40s. They make an average of 30 million to 50 million won a year. They work mostly south of the Han River, and cross a bridge into northern Seoul mostly to attend launching events or press previews in downtown hotels. It is a job many young Korean women would die for, but they last, on average only 10 years because of the nature of the job, which is based to a great extent on fashion trends of young women.
“The job often requires you to pay attention to meticulous details with sensual packaging which women could explore with an ease,” says Ms. Oh from Gucci.
There is a popular joke among women in public relations: If you made one slip in your previous life, you became a journalist. If you made two slips, you end up in public relations. This piece of comic relief refers to the labor of dealing with journalists, who generally have a reputation of treating public relations people as lesser beings. To stay on top of the job, public relations specialists must hone the skills and patience to deal with adversities of many types.
Public relations and journalism meet in a no-man’s land, where the lines are constantly shifting, and the high ground has been conceded to the media. Yet due to the sensitivity of the issue and fear of retribution no one interviewed for this article would address the reality outright.
To duck nettlesome barrages, Lim Purumae, a public relations officer for Oakwood Premier Seoul, a luxury resident hotel, says, “It was only recently that I began to print my mobile phone number on my business card to avoid reporters bugging me during off hours.”
Rethinking her statement, she says later, “But it’s always been an interesting part of the business for me to deal with journalists.”
In the conservative corporate environment, which tends to evaluate the performance of the public relations staff on the frequency of press coverage, the stress on these women grows when there is a demand to push harder.
“There is even a theory that a skilled public relations specialist needs to develop friendships with reporters apart from their professional relationship,” says Jannifer Kang, 29, a member of the public relations department at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seoul.
Ms. Oh from Gucci Korea says dealing with reporters in Korea often requires a conscious effort of self control.
“You have to train yourself to be kind, humble and polite at all times,” says Ms. Oh. “If you give the slightest impression that you are being selective about the media, the next day you will hear people saying Gucci is too arrogant.”
During a recent afternoon, Ms. Oh of Bluebell was talking with a style reporter about a layout for a French cosmetics brand her company is launching this fall. The product is targeted mainly at upper-class women between the ages of 20 and 60 who visit hotel beauty palors regularly for skin care.
“It took some time to change my perception about the notion of luxury,” Ms. Oh says. “Still I would consider myself arrogant in my job, because when something’s bothering me I usually remain silent.”
In their personal lives these women say they suffer from their learned meticulousness.
“I get easily upset when I don’t get the service I deserve at restaurants, because I am used to providing service with determined precision,” Ms. Lim says.
When sales drop, the demands, without exception, increase. This has been the case over the last few months. As economists warned, consumers have zipped their wallets, with spending at its lowest level since the Asian foreign exchange crisis.
“There is a theory that single women in their 20s are the last group of consumers to close their purses even in the worst recession,” says Ms. Oh of Bluebell, referring to the core target group for luxury brands. “They don’t have a family to support, so the money they spend on adornments becomes part of their investments. Yet analysts say even these women have stopped spending since May.”
Ultimately, once past the allure of luxuries and the status they bestow, the questions turn to values. What is it like to promote a purse worth more than your kid’s annual tuition when the poorest in society are concerned about having enough money to buy their children milk? Aren’t you really selling nothing other than empty fantasies?
To this epistomological query Ms. Oh of Bluebell repsonds that “People are buying the pride, the confidence we assert about the value and tradition of a Ferragamo or a Gucci. Then of course there is a little bit of desire to identify with the best. People call that vanity.”
Ms. Lim of Oakwood Premier says it is not fair judgement in a free market to bring an ethical standard to the debate on luxury brands.
“Every company promotes for their interest groups,” says Ms. Lim. “Just because some companies promote luxury brands doesn’t mean we are responsible for fostering over-spending in our society.”
Maybe human beings are meant to believe what they want to believe, or maybe some people just like to keep things simple when it comes to their job, but these women public relations specialists concur that they have almost never questioned what they do in terms of the common good.
“There has never been a case in which I didn’t believe and was not confident in what I was promoting,” says Ms. Lee of Audi Korea.
Ms. Lee at Clinique Korea is as resolute.
“Ask any one of us, and she will attest to the belief she has in what she promotes,” says Ms. Lee. “If she doesn’t, she will try to develop one because she knows the difference shows.”
by Park Soo-mee