Consultants shape new rules for election battles

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Consultants shape new rules for election battles

It was 15 days before election day in the hard-fought presidential campaign of December 2002 when the owner of a fish stall in Busan, Lee Il-soon, stood in a Seoul television studio to deliver an endorsement for the candidate she believed in.

In a thick Busan accent, the 58-year-old woman heartily endorsed former human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun, who at that stage was considered an underdog to Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the Saenuri Party.

“I came to Seoul [to give a speech] and closed my stall, which I have never done in all these years no matter how sick I was or how serious troubles were at home,” said Lee. “I came here today because I firmly believe that Roh is a person who understands ordinary people like me. … Roh understands the grievances of ordinary people because he has experienced such grievances.”

Pre-election endorsements had been routine in Korean elections, but in the past they were always given by stentorian big shots. This was the first time a party enlisted a representative of the hoi polloi.

The public was fascinated, and KBS’s ratings for the show reached 12.4 percent, more than double the rating for the endorsement given by GNP lawmaker Kim Moon-su for Lee Hoi-chang on the same day. That rating was 5.7 percent.

Roh eventually won the presidency.

That broadcast was a turning point in Korean electoral politics because the endorsement from the fish-stall owner was the brainchild of Roh’s professional political consultant, a job that barely existed before that election. And like Chevy cars and McDonald’s hamburgers, the concept exported from America has caught on in Korea, and with June 4 local elections less than three months away, there has never been a bigger field for the hired political guns.

Scrambling to find ways to appeal to voters and challenge opponents, an increasing number of candidates across the political spectrum are begging for campaign strategies from political consultants headquartered in the political hub of Yeouido, southwestern Seoul. They need help with old media, new media, older voters and the young - and they’re willing to pay handsomely for the advice.

“April will be the busiest month of the year,” said Yoon Hee-woong, a director of the public opinion analysis team at Min Consulting, a political consulting group. “We have our clients from both the ruling party and the opposition.”

Min Consulting was founded in 1991, just four years after the reintroduction of direct presidential elections. It won’t say how many clients are from the ruling Saenuri Party or the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, citing a secrecy clause in its contracts with clients.

But in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in a strategy room overlooking the Mapo Bridge in Yeouido on March 21, the 40-year-old veteran consultant said the scale of local elections provides a once-every-four-years boom to the political consulting industry.

In the June elections, over 3,900 people will be elected in four tiers of local government: the mayors of the eight major metropolitan areas - Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Gwangju, Daejeon, Ulsan and Sejong City - and members of their city councils and education superintendents; governors of the country’s nine provinces, members of their provincial councils or legislatures and education superintendents; mayors of 74 smaller cities and their city council members; and heads of the country’s 69 district offices and members of their district councils.

That’s more than 10 times the number of people elected in a National Assembly election.

In order to provide consulting that makes a difference, it’s essential to understand both the client and his or her constituents, Yoon said.

“The key point of political consulting is to provide a client with an idea of the needs or concerns of his or her constituents, which must be effectively and directly addressed during the campaign,” said Yoon.

The consultant commissions surveys to determine the needs or interests of the individual constituencies, Yoon said.

“Above all, a political consulting firm must have an in-depth understanding of a client’s political philosophies and vision before it sets out a winning strategy,” Yoon said.

Once the strategy is set, it is essential that a client sticks to it throughout the campaign, the consultant emphasized.

Fees paid to consultants differ depending on the size of the position being contested. For candidates running for city council spots, consulting firms charge tens of millions of won for one campaign. The price tag gets steeper for someone running for mayor in a smaller city, around 100 million won ($92,800). For mayoral positions in the eight metropolitan cities and governorships, fees can go as high as 1 billion won, according to the industry.

Once a deal is signed, the political consultant will manage advertisements, campaign slogans, speeches and the creation of an image for their client.

“I didn’t use a consulting firm in previous elections because I didn’t feel it was needed,” said Song In-bae, a former presidential secretary for the late President Roh who unsuccessfully ran in the last two general elections to represent Yangsan, South Gyeongsang.

Song said he won’t make that mistake again when he runs for the National Assembly in 2016.

“In the past, I didn’t really know what a political consulting company did,” he admitted.
“I now know that being a candidate for the Assembly requires a wide range of preparatory work that can’t be done all on your own. It will be a great help to receive assistance from outside my own camp.”

Political observers estimate the number of consulting firms nationwide to be at nearly 40, and some say they’ve accumulated about 2 trillion won for this year’s local election campaigns. But there’s an ebb and flow in political consulting depending on campaign seasons and fallow seasons, successes and failures.

As a testament to the volatile nature of political consulting, there are only a few firms that have been in the market for at least five years, including the 23-year-old Min Consulting, Jowonc&I, P&C and Research View.

About 20 candidates are seeking help from Jowonc&I for the local elections, according to Park Sang-ho, one of its consultants.

“Consulting firms worry about cases in which their own clients go on to perform badly as elected officials,” he said, “which could give them a bad reputation for helping unqualified people get elected.”

The political consulting business in the United States dates back to 1896 when a millionaire businessman, Mark Hanna, successfully engineered the presidential election for William McKinley. In Korea, that history didn’t begin to be significant until the early 1990s.

“It all started from 1987,” said Yoon of Min Consulting, referring to the resumption of direct presidential elections after a student-led nationwide movement for democracy ended decades of military dictatorships under Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.

“But in the late 1980s, political consulting was done on an individual basis and on a minuscule scale,” Yoon said.

The veteran consultant said it was in the early 1990s that political consultants started providing analytical frameworks to candidates as well as some ideas and tricks borrowed from the West.

The first televised debate in Korea occurred in the 1992 presidential campaign that pitted Kim Young-sam against Kim Dae-jung, sparking the need for campaign strategists to come up with ways to control candidates’ images.

Five years later, when Kim contested the presidency again, he pleaded for public support in a TV campaign commercial with a background song by the dance group DJ DOC.

Then, in 2002, came the unprecedented televised endorsement by Busan fish-stall owner Lee Il-soon, which sent shockwaves through the world of Korean politics.

“It came as a huge shock to the political arena at the time when an ordinary woman gave a televised, official endorsement for a candidate,” said Cho Kwang-hwan, who heads the consulting firm Makers10.

Cho ought to know: He said he personally recruited Lee from the fish market in Busan while working as a campaign strategist for Roh Moo-hyun.

“The endorsement sent strong shockwaves to the rival camp and our counterparts in the PR division of the GNP were all fired,” said Cho, who believes the endorsement turned the election campaign in favor of Roh, who beat his challenger Lee Hoi-chang by a margin of 2.3 percent.

“After the endorsement was aired, Roh personally phoned me to thank me for helping the campaign.”

The country that has the most influence in inspiring local consulting firms is the United States.

“The U.S. is leading the election campaign culture worldwide,” said Yoon of Min Consulting. “The fact that the two countries both have presidencies adds to its huge impact on the Korean campaign scene.”

In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama’s team used YouTube videos to build grass-roots support from young voters. Four years later, the campaigns of both ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye and opposition candidate Moon Jae-in also unveiled stylish campaign clips in the lead-up to the Dec. 19, 2012 election.

But political consultants in Seoul are a lot more discreet than those in the United States.

“In our political arena, it is considered a virtue not to tout one’s consulting achievements, while it is the opposite in the U.S.,” said Yoon. “The unspoken rule is that the candidate gets credit for an electoral victory, not us.”

When asked about the prospects of the upcoming June election, Yoon gives a gloomy view of the opposition’s prospects.

“It will be an uphill battle for the opposition to retain what it achieved in the 2010 elections,” he said. “In the past, people in their 40s were a force that swayed election outcomes. But with an aging population, it is now largely up to the baby boom generation [born between 1955 and 1963], who tend to be more conservative in determining election outcomes. … Political parties must better understand them and present policy promises to draw their interest."


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