By Lucy Siegel | February 17, 2021
Meet Nancy C.J. Choi, president of CJ’s World Co., Ltd., a public relations firm in Seoul, Republic of Korea. CJ’s World specializes in travel PR. Over the agency’s 30-year history, it has represented a stellar list of international travel brands, ranging from national convention and visitors bureaus and tourist boards (Norway, Mexico, Germany, Austria, Greece, Qatar, Finland, Philippines, and more) to airlines, and sporting events as well). CJs World and Choi herself have won scores of prestigious PR awards and honors over the years.
Public relations, which the business world in South Korea didn’t understand very well years ago, is now much more widely used and appreciated. Some PR industry observers have commented that the turning point came in 1988 when South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics. Olympic sponsors from around the world wanted PR, and marketing in South Korea began to embrace PR.
The media in South Korea has also progressed. The press suffered under the control of the federal government of former President Park Gyun-Hye, who was impeached for corruption and removed in 2017. Journalists have gained much more independence and are faring well under current President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer. (According to Reporters Without Borders, which provides information about media freedom worldwide, the country’s media situation has greatly improved over the past few years.)
Choi is a public relations veteran with deep roots in the travel industry. She has served in influential roles in tourism and public relations trade groups, including the International Public Relations Association – Korea chair. Her career includes executive positions at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Northwest Airlines. In 2002 she was appointed director of communications for global PR and media campaign bids for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
CJ’s World was one of the early members of Public Relations Boutiques International’s global network. Choi served on the organization’s executive committee during PRBI’s startup phase about 12 years ago. This blog interview with Nancy Choi provides an overview of how PR is perceived and practiced in South Korea.
PRBI: Years ago, PR was understood by the corporate world in your country as getting media coverage. The Korean business world did not understand other PR services, such as crisis PR, issues management, etc. Has that changed? How well do Korean executives understand PR now?
Nancy Choi: In general, people in our market understand that PR includes a variety of services. For example, they know and ask for crisis management services, such as when a Hungarian cruise ship sank in 2019 in Budapest with a few hundred Korean travelers on board. The company’s CEO was somewhat visible, but the one who was visible in the Korean media was the PR director. Watching that kind of example helps Korean executives understand PR better.
PRBI: Is it hard to convince senior Korean executives to use PR services other than media relations?
NC: No, now they know the necessity of public relations services, but for serious matters, sometimes they consult with law firms, especially in a crisis case. But they do bring their PR staff into the situation and discuss the issue with them.
PRBI: Do Korean businesspeople often confuse PR with advertising?
NC: It was like that in the past. PR services were not well understood or appreciated in this market. However, the business community now knows that PR activities are supported by advertising, and PR is less costly. As in other countries, public relations associations and organizations, such as the Korea Public Relations Association, occasionally offer PR education for professionals. Companies send their PR staff to these educational seminars and workshops to better educate them. So, executives here are slowly learning about and understanding the effects of public relations.
PRBI: The Korean business world has always been very hierarchical, with virtually all top executives being older, and having higher status and much more power than their employees. The younger staff were expected to respect and be loyal to their bosses and companies. If all this is still true, how does it affect public relations in South Korea and make it different from other countries?
NC: These days, more young executives are obtaining higher positions, and they know they can make a big difference using PR services. Senior executives do consult with and listen to public relations people since they are considered professional, and the executives know they have useful media contacts. Whenever executives are faced with an urgent communications issue, they consult with the PR staff first.
PRBI: Have the successful startups in your country made a difference in young people’s attitudes about wanting to get jobs with big companies?
NC: In some ways. There is still a reverence for large successful companies, but the startups sometimes offer higher salaries and other benefits. Some startups have grown quite large due to rapid advances in the digital world, like Apple, which has created more professional opportunities and benefits.
PRBI: What is the most significant misunderstanding that foreign businesspeople have about public relations in South Korea? What is the worst mistake they make?
NC: They underestimate the power of PR. They consult with law firms since they believe law firms can help them solve problems. Yet PR services can do a lot for them. The public relations market here is still growing in influence.
PRBI: What should we know about the Korean media and how journalism works in your country?
NC: Journalists sometimes can report and write about topics they choose, but usually they have to obtain approval from their editors. In most cases, a senior journalist (usually the head of their departments) double-checks their stories. But sometimes, when journalists are senior professionals and know a lot about the field they write about, this isn’t necessary.
PRBI: How much freedom do reporters and editors have now? Is there much censorship?
NC: They do have freedom, but it is based on the newspaper company’s guidelines. Journalists may be censored by their companies if something they are writing about could hurt the company.
PRBI: Do reporters and editors practice “self-censorship” to avoid angering the people and companies they are covering?
NC: Usually not if the issue is already well-known.
PRBI: Do Korean reporters ask tough questions when they interview executives?
NC: In most interview situations, journalists ask their questions beforehand in writing, and then the person to be interviewed has a choice of whether to accept the interview or not. Companies carefully consider who should be interviewed. In sensitive situations, instead of the CEO, they will offer another lower executive.
PRBI: Are journalists willing to write stories that will embarrass the companies they are reporting on, or are they afraid to be critical?
NC: In situations like that, the company’s PR staff gets involved and compromises with journalists to prevent stories that will hurt the company. The PR staff might require that they screen the interview before it is published.
PRBI: Relationships with the media have always been important for PR people in your country, much more than in America. Is it still necessary to have strong relationships with reporters to get media coverage? Do you take journalists out for dinner or drinks?
NC: Yes, it is vital to keep strong relationships with journalists to secure coverage in the future. Journalists also need strong relationships with PR people to get access to important stories before other media.And we do occasionally go out for drinks with journalists to maintain good relationships with them.
PRBI: The quality of journalism in a country is often the result of how much respect society gives to journalism. Do journalists get paid pretty well in South Korea? Is journalism a well-respected, life-long career?
NC: The quality of journalists is quite high. They are paid well, and it is indeed a life-long career.
PRBI: In the US, the media is very decentralized. To reach the entire American population, PR professionals have to reach out to both national and local media. On the other hand, in some other countries, the media is mostly centralized and reach everyone nationwide. In South Korea, is the media primarily national, or do people in smaller cities read local papers and watch local TV stations? Another way to ask that is, from a PR standpoint, if you contact national media, do you reach most people?
NC: We have a leading group of about five daily newspapers that each have a circulation of more than a million. These papers do have local bureaus that gather and report local news. However, some cities have their own local papers, such as Busan Ilbo and Gangwon Daily. Sometimes those local papers cover big news more thoroughly than centralized national media. For example, during the Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics in 2018, the Gangwon Daily, the local paper, wrote more stories than the national press. It all depends on the topics being covered. In this case, the regional media offered local people more detailed news in their newspaper and on TV than the big national news media provided.
PRBI: Are reporters organized into a system of press clubs, as they are in Japan? If so, how powerful are the press clubs, and what is their purpose?
NC: There are two press clubs here. One is the Foreign Press Club, and the other is the Korean Press Club. Besides those, most government divisions have pressrooms for journalists assigned to cover that bureau. The purpose of the press clubs and government pressrooms is to make it easier to deliver news to the media and more convenient for them to access it.
PRBI: In some parts of Asia, you can pay to have a story published by a news media outlet. Can you do this in South Korea? Can you pay a reporter not to write a story?
NC: No, neither is possible here. Even if a client is an advertiser, that doesn’t help much to get them good media coverage. Clients can only buy good coverage by paying for an advertorial [now called sponsored content in many parts of the world].
PRBI: What mistakes, if any, do foreign business people make when they have media interviews in South Korea?
NC: Sometimes they speak negatively about Korea and state their personal opinions instead of being objective and businesslike. Korean business people are interested in hearing about new techniques and world trends. If foreign executives talk about these subjects in interviews, what they say will be well-received by the Korean business community.
PRBI: As recently as seven or eight years ago, I hear that traditional media in Korea (newspapers especially) were more trusted and respected by consumers than the “new” online digital media. Is this still true?
NC: Digital news is faster than old media. That is why old media also runs digital news in addition to their traditional format (print, radio, or TV). But digital media also includes fake news. Maybe that is why traditional media are still trusted more.
PRBI: In most industrialized countries worldwide, print media are suffering due to both smaller circulation and a loss of ad revenue, and digital media are growing both in terms of the number of “eyeballs” and ad revenues. Younger people don’t read newspapers as much as they used to, and read their news online. Is this now happening in South Korea, also?
NC: Yes, it is happening in Korea as well. Consumers can quickly get free news and information online. So they don’t want to pay for print media. That is why, to raise revenues, print newspapers now offer many different sections, such as business, housing, health, etc. Younger people want to get the story quickly, and it’s more convenient and saves time to do it online. This seems to be happening. However, reading the paper provides more in-depth knowledge. It might be ideal to do both! Most of the paper media have online coverage as well, as I mentioned. Still, so-called portal sites – Korean social media sites NAVER and DAUM – also have stories in different categories, section by section. Most business people now read articles online, as it is quicker. I subscribe to a morning newspaper and one in the evening. I feel that paper media bring me a variety of news, and getting both morning and evening papers keeps me up to date.
PRBI: Is PR on social media important to reach a Korean audience (such as to bloggers, or a PR campaign on a social media network – such as asking readers to help name a new product and giving a prize to the best name, just an example)?
NC: That kind of PR campaign is more common on social media than in newspapers. Newspapers have less space. As to blogger outreach, we generally contact journalists first, and they may introduce us to bloggers. Some bloggers in particular subject areas have a huge audience and are very powerful. If there are bloggers with big followings among the audience we are aiming for, then we do reach out to them. Sometimes when our clients want to see media results very quickly, we invite bloggers to press conferences. For example, once we were doing work for the European Union Agriculture Committee and needed to get their message out very quickly, so we included some bloggers in their press conference. However, we often have to pay bloggers, with the amount depending on their influence.
PRBI: American PR professionals reach out to bloggers with large followings the same way they reach out to print or broadcast journalists. Is that the case in Korea as well?
NC: We definitely consider bloggers to be different from journalists. Bloggers may be able to spread their stories/news widely, but journalists are more trustworthy.
PRBI: In the US and some other countries, “influencer outreach” has become a common PR tactic. Marketers give some bloggers and social media figures (“influencers”) free products to encourage them to talk/write about the products. Some influencers also get paid – sometimes a lot. Is “influencer outreach” common in South Korea?
NC: In the travel field, some bloggers are invited by airlines on free trips to promote the airline, e.g., to introduce a new type of inflight service, such as a new business class category. As in the US, they are expected to mention the company that sponsored their trips.
PRBI: Are South Korean companies happy when your agency gets a story into an online newspaper or magazine? Or are they still valuing print coverage much more highly?
NC: Since all the print media is also online, the PR staff can prepare a media report from either the online or the paper version of print media. But stories on portals are different. The benefit of online news is that it saves time, as it comes quickly.
PRBI: Nancy, thank you for sharing your knowledge with us about PR, journalism, and marketing in South Korea. Your experience and wisdom about your market are invaluable to us!