Despite fears about the state of the Korean economy, FleishmanHillard’s Yvonne Park says effective engagement, built around the principle of the public interest, can yield benefits for business seeking to enhance the policy agenda
What do companies need to do to influence government and the policy environment?
Companies have to be proactive if they want to improve the business environment. This requires strategic government relations. At the moment our overall economic environment is getting worse so confidence levels in government are not high. But confidence in the way we deal with government, such as enhanced transparency is increasing. We are also seeing more channels of communication opening up. This creates an opportunity for engagement.
The most effective approach is to ensure there is a media dimension. Media plays a key role in influencing the agenda among politicians and government. The media is very effective – perhaps more than the National Assembly – in influencing government.
How do you do this in practice?
President Park is a person of firm conviction and strong will. This may sometimes make government officials defensive and reactive. They may occasionally feel great pressure. The pressure on them to be transparent is high – this comes from the president, from social media, so from the top to the bottom. To have influence and change policy you need to have the right message, target the media, and convey it in terms of public interest or in economic terms. Understanding social sentiment is important. So too is assessing the impact of policy on the public and business. That is key to influencing the government. You must present your point of view at the right time, in the right way and with the right focus on public sentiment.
Is an identifiable public affairs industry developing in Korea?
Here most industries have official industry bodies and they are the focal point for government relations. However the level of expertise and understanding of the changes within trade associations can be quite old fashioned. To deal with the new environment, major companies such as Samsung are increasingly dependent on their own functions to engage government. Foreign companies do need to be more cautious about how they approach government, but new channels are opening up. These channels are allowing companies to deliver on their position and goals.
Are we seeing a more towards more collective decision making in Korea?
Given the changes we have seen the President can no longer make all the decisions alone. The public, the media, lawmakers, NGOs all have a voice. They express their complaints and views on decisions. The government cannot hide its decisions so the President cannot exercise her power without these groups. Government needs to be in touch with people: this is closely linked to confidence levels.
Our current President has been criticized for not engaging enough and not communicating as effectively as she could. This may be unfair but an impression of a lack of communication does affect public trust levels. A recent survey put trust levels in the Korean government at 34 per cent, which is very low. And in a separate survey, the National Assembly was ranked the lowest in terms of trust – at only 10 per cent. This is directly linked to communications.
Despite this are decisions being taken more openly today?
Transparency is increasing and the government here in Korea has passed legislation similar to the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This prohibits government employees from receiving gifts over a certain amount. The Act comes into effect in September next year and this will enhance transparency for government officers. This will affect the government relations practice.
What are the key issues the government needs to address?
Fundamentally it must address the question of the economy. Economic growth is less than three per cent. Household debt is rising rapidly. And there is a housing crisis. Confidence about the economy is very low and we are not seeing many solutions coming from government and lawmakers. We also have significant ideological divides between the political parties. However some individuals are encouraging national debate about what needs to be done to address these issues and to shape the agenda. This is a positive change.
Are NGOs engaged enough in the debate in Korea’s policy process today?
NGOs are viewed as very different stakeholders to trade groups. NGO influence grew between 1998 and 2008 under the Liberal government. However the last government has reversed this. Despite their reduced influence they do continue to play an important role in engaging in in discussion and presenting a variety of views – even if they are not fully engaged in policy dialogue. We do need to have NGOs present at important policy discussions to encourage a diversity of views. However under the Conservative administration NGOs are not as influential as they once were because they are considered to be more left-wing and linked to opposition parties.
What impact has social media had on the engagement between government, citizens and business?
Government and national assembly members follow social media in Korea every day. There are dedicated teams to follow conversations real-time, to monitor what is being said, so politicians can respond through Twitter and local tools. Social media has influenced change. Government and lawmakers are sensitive to what is said on social media, because crises can start in the social media space and can then become a big issue.
It is quite easy for an issue to become hot, but it can also be forgotten about quite quickly. So sentiment can change quite quickly and social media has played its part in this. Agendas can change quite quickly so sometimes social media can make an issue hot, but it does not necessarily mean the issue remains on the agenda for long.
How does the government in Korea use social media in areas such as gender and healthcare to promote causes or raise awareness?
The Korean government often looks to outside bodies to help drive communications campaigns. Recently, for example, the campaign around non-smoking has become one of the biggest public health campaigns. The government has nearly doubled the cost of tobacco through tax increases.
Smokers groups have been very critical. But government is now mounting a large campaign to educate people about the fact that smoking is a disease to cure. The government is going beyond public education, to work on many levels and through many agencies to work together and focus on different target audiences, such as teenagers, female groups, doctors groups and so on.
This allows the government to customize its programme for each of these groups. This campaign has gone very well. The government invests heavily in communications and in engaging the public through such campaigns.
Yvonne Park is the managing director of FleishmanHillard’s Seoul office, where she provides public affairs, crisis communications and reputation management counseling. She also helps lead FleishmanHillard’s public sector. As a leader of the firm’s sustainability team, she has worked with a wide variety of clients and, in particular, has deep expertise coaching C-level executives. Park, whose previous roles include working at a publication company and a music production business, has served as an adviser and board member for several government and nonprofit organizations.
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