[Overseas view]A failure to communicate

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[Overseas view]A failure to communicate

In the second half of 2008 I was on the public relations team retained by the Finance Ministry to assist in generating better relations with the international press here in Korea. At the same time I was completing a masters degree in professional communications, researching the anti-U.S. beef campaign as a case study in social media. From these perspectives I suspect 2008 will be remembered as a year of missed opportunities for the Lee Myung-bak government.

Central to the administration’s difficulties in winning public support while mired in two deeply affecting crises, was its failure to communicate consistently and frankly with the Korean people. The anti-U.S. beef crisis was the first test of the Lee government’s public communications skills. History shows the government was unwilling or unable to counteract the effective use of social media used to great effect by activist groups. The enormous impact of social media caught the government by surprise. This was reflected in the government’s retroactive decision to legislate a ban on deliberate spreading of damaging false rumors over the Internet.

We know that initial public anger over U.S. beef imports sprouted from a misleading report aired on commercial television. That report was irresponsible and its propagation by activist groups through social media was extremely damaging. But legislation to ban content through social networks is an attack on free speech, and was never likely to sway broad public support in the government’s favor.

A more effective method of counteracting damaging misinformation in cyberspace is to address it directly through the same communication channels used by those spreading the rumors. The use of social networking sites such as Twitter, by Barack Obama’s campaign team, was extremely successful and is now held as a model for public communication in the political sphere.

The credit crunch, which began in 2008, also highlighted communication failures by the Lee administration. Criticism of the government’s weak won policy is a case in point.

When the credit crunch came this policy was heavily criticized in the international media. Initiated in order to drive up Korean exports, the weak-won policy was not the fiscal folly some in international media painted it to be. It was certainly defensible within reasoned public discourse.

But because the strategic rationale behind the policy was never adequately communicated, circumstances which rendered it obsolete strained the confidence of the Korean public and international observers, in the government’s economic decision-making.

This was unfair. It is wrong to believe the Lee government should have foreseen the enormity of the credit crunch. But what markets and individuals need from their leaders is to know they are in control and are not panicking. This is particularly important now as confidence is central to weathering the current storm.

Regular and frank communication which detail central plans in a calm and controlled manner are what is needed. Such communication should be conducted in forums which provide a cross section of media with opportunities to engage high-level cabinet representatives in analysis and debate.

A look at Lee’s use of mainstream media over the past 12 months tells us a lot about his style of communication. We have seen the president deliver scripted national addresses and appear in one televised discussion with selected thought leaders from Korean media and academia. Western analysts would find it curious that he is yet to appear in one general press conference.

In the United States regular presidential press conferences are an integral part of the job. The media expects every president to face critics regularly. Even former President George W. Bush, despite never being a comfortable performer at press conferences, held 17 in just his first term; that number is the lowest for a U.S. presidential term in the television age.

The reluctance of the Lee administration to engage in discussion with the Korean people, through mass or social media channels, is robbing the government of the chance to gain support for its policies at a time when the nation needs to hear more from its leaders.

On May 31 last year, Kim Jin-Kook wrote in this paper of the need for the Lee administration to listen to and then persuade Korean citizens of the way forward for the country. This is leadership through communication and conciliation.

After one year in office it has been difficult to identify much in the way of communication from the Lee administration. The great irony is that, much of the conciliation it made in its first year in office - the cabinet sackings, the public apologies - was reactive and might not even have been necessary with more effective public communication.

Most importantly, the lessons of the past year prove that, for the government to survive in the current domestic political climate, a greater emphasis on communicating to various audiences on their terms, rather than those of the government, will ensure wider local and international recognition of its policies and stewardship.

*The writer is the director of the international copywriting collective Activate Communications (Korea).

by Jamie Morse
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