Somehow, I got invited to be a part of The Presidential Commission for Nation Branding, a group formed by President Lee Myung-bak to solve the basic problem of why so much money and effort are expended in trying to being more tourists to Korea and improving the "nation brand", which according to some "experts" is far below where the country is in terms of other markers of development and stability.
Frankly, I think the Commission was desperate enough to actually put foreigners and people like me on the committee because I think they really are desperate to fix the situation. And they're starting to ask the right people. Me, I made Korea's first podcast, video podcast, and was one of the big bloggers for awhile. I, along with others, have produced other content, such as photographs, that has been published everywhere from Lufthansa Airlines Magazine and CNN, to most of the domestic newspaper and magazine publications, both Korean and not.
They called me because I know how to make content about Korea, and I know how to make it stick. For better or for worse. And I have had a lot to say at Commission meetings, but have been starting to feel frustrated in that nothing much will change and most of the Commission's money and effort will result in minimal change to the way things are done. And here's the first one, which I talk about at length below.
This describes the fundamental problem of searching for the answer only in the places where one is able to look. Put another way, it's like looking for one's keys only under street lamps; away from the street lamp, one can't see at all, so these areas are skipped. But that doesn't mean the keys aren't there. In a very similar way, governments tackle these problems with the only tools they know -- setting up large commissions and bureaucratic processes amongst the most conservative of its ilk, the civil servants and people who wear suits. But what if, as is very likely the case when it comes to something as unpredictable and personal as the formation of a national reputation, the solution does not lie in setting up PR initiatives, advertising campaigns, or coming up with a new tourism slogan?
What if both the problem (and solution) are much smaller in scale, or issues that must be handled with subtlety? For example, one argument I have presented over and over links the rising media vilification of foreign English teachers as drug addicts/criminals/AIDS carriers/child molesters with rising negative attitudes to the same said group of foreigners. Is this a radical assertion? That when a country's mass media relentlessly represents a group of outsiders in a certain way, people begin to actually think about them that way, and even treat them accordingly? In combination with rising anti-Americanism in the public sphere since 2002-3, I assert both a statistical and anecdotal rise in the verbal and physical harassment of foreigners here.
Combine that with the other node of negativity I identify: the hagwon and the exploitative public school. An unregulated industry chock full of shady characters and fly-by-night operations, with even the best in the industry still marked by a cutthroat mercantilism that has helped make the image of the dog-eat-dog Korean education infamous -- many of these same English teachers and instructors' first significant and ongoing contact with Korean society is through the hagwon (or the many schools and other organizations being increasingly run just like them). Many of these foreigners encounter broken contracts, lies about payment, unreasonable teaching and working conditions, poor planning, and even a total lack of curriculum as the norm. Add on top of that the rude treatment, unprofessional attitude, and overall negative atmosphere prevalent in many of them, is it a surprise that many foreigners begin to hate their jobs, their lives, and by extent, Korea?
Let's look at this in terms of numbers. In 1992, the Korean government started a new kind of Fulbright program, in conjunction with the American government. Well before the influx of massive amounts of foreign English teachers in the late 1990's, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program was designed to send a few dozen well-trained American teachers to middle and high schools in the countryside. Given an extensive orientation in Korean language and culture, the grantees are supposed to learn about Korea and take that experience back to the US; as the group moved into different fields and career directions, the idea was that this cultural exchange would put a little bit of Korea into the people who would become our nation's doctors, lawyers, and politicians. The ETA program is running strong at just under 100 in-country per year. The number of E-2 visa holders alone each year is 20,000+.
What's the point here? It's that a single assumption can't be both true and not true. If one assumes that the funding and energy spent on the Fulbright ETA program is worth it, one is working with the assumption that it's raison de etre -- a conduit of cultural exchange and a major conduit for a positive image of Korea amongst our nation's elite-to-be -- what does this mean for the 20,000+ English teachers coming in per year?
Given the fact that, anecdotally speaking, the vast majority of English teachers leave this country with a negative image of Korea (to put it lightly), or at least, not a positive one, and that we have picked up on the negative, racist images of foreigners in this country, is it any wonder that they fill much of the Internet with nasty blog posts, tell their friends how horrible Korea was, etcetera?
How does one address the problem of bad hagwons, abusive vice-principals, and a system that basically only sees native teachers as expendable, short-term resources and not as real teachers? This is where the vast majority of negativity on the part of many native speakers comes from, where the rumors and bad reputation gets spread, where the nasty blogging and message boarding comes from, and where Google, as the ultimate content aggregator in the West, tracks it.
How does one deal with this? Here's what the Commission came up with, some of which you might have seen on television or in the street already:
- Public media campaigns to "smile at foreigners?" This doesn't help when the bulk of the mass media is busy vilifying them to the point that harassment is on the rise.
- How about public service commercials encouraging Koreans to be "good global citizens?" Noooo. Because this is mis-identifying the actual source of most foreigners' resentment of Korea and Koreans, if any is assumed to exist. Most people living here, or even visiting, can excuse ajummas who cut in line or pushy crowds as just a part of being in another culture, however annoying this may be. Same with spitting, wearing pajamas in public in Shanghai, or similar things. They're not important, but rather peripheral concerns.
- How about building a team of foreign students as bloggers to talk up Korea? Again, the same institutional response. You're just going to get a lot of obviously Korea-boosterish, badly written blogs by newbies. And the lopsided, tourist-brochurish content that will be written will be minimally helpful, at best, completely useless at worst.
- How about building another multi-million-dollar government web site designed for foreigners? I bet the head of the commission that this site will get more hits per day than the multi-million-dollar site that won't do well in terms of SEO, won't get tracked well by Google, since their site will link to a million sites that don't link back (a great way to lose what they call "Google juice"), and won't result in any content different from the dozens of other government tourist sites. Several members of the Council strongly indicated that this was a complete waste of time and money.
What were the solutions I and others recommended? Ones that would have cost a fraction of the money they used and would be far more effective? Here's what I thought:
-- "Smile at foreigner" campaigns are ineffective and stupid. In terms of image management of and behavior towards foreigners, which would you rather do -- shoot a squirt gun's worth of "positive" messages upstream, against a near tidal wave, or try to reduce the near-tsunami of negative images at the source, from the mainstream media? My proposal was to consider unregulated hagwons and schools' exploitation as linked to national image -- BECAUSE IT IS -- and a) issue a report declaring the issues linked and national media's vilification of foreigners as not only unprofessional but a "harm to the country" (나라망신), b) form a government agency designed to advocate on the side of foreigners in workplace disputes and also filing formal complaints against the media, which actually keeps the media in check in all other areas, and c) change the laws regarding lawsuits against hagwons/schools filed by a foreigner to be adjudicated within a short period of time. These are all concrete and reasonable recommendations that could work. And the VERY FACT that they are being made would be a huge gesture in and of itself. At the very least, a public report linking media targeting of foreigners and worsening national image would be a huge tool to use against a yellow media that runs out-of-control because no one is standing up to them.
-- Resentment towards Koreans doesn't come from bad manners. It comes from bad relationships. Which leaves a more lasting impression, an ajumma who bumped you, something which you almost expect to happen, or getting screwed in your workplace situation, which one tends to hope won't happen? Which negative traits are going to stick in your craw? A rude, pushy, and inconsiderate ajumma whom you don't even know? Or a deep-rooted hatred and disrespect for your nasty boss, abusive co-worker, or even the entire staff of the hagwon/school? One of these will be brushed off as cultural differences that can be tolerated; the other will result in many people starting to hate Korea to the core.
-- Building a team of newbie bloggers to write boosterish sites about Korean culture? How about supporting the bloggers who ALREADY DO make interesting content about Korea? Why reinvent the wheel? Why forge a new path when a thoroughfare's already there? I estimated that the top 25 foreign bloggers in Korea control most of the internet conversation going on about Korea, through content aggregators such as Google, and/or established communities that form around the blogs. When mainstream media needs English-language information about Korea, the big blogs dominate the field. Why would you ignore them?
-- Don't even get me started on the web site. Millions of dollars wasted. Because THAT'S how big organizations are doomed to try and make big changes: along traditional, bureaucratic lines. Treating existing content producers as professionals or as press, maintaining god lines of communication with them, keeping them in the loop about relevant events -- these are cheap, quick, and effective ways of starting to improve the brand. For the price of pizza and beer once a month, press passes to relevant events, and some kind of public recognition, bloggers would do more for Korea than millions of dollars thrown down the drain in some campaign.
But alas, Institution-Think reared its ugly head. Big, conservative organizations think big. And act accordingly. What if the problem requires, quick, nimble, and innovative solutions? You generally should counter with options that are quick, nimble, and innovative.
But these government orgs, further crippled by being staffed with civil servants, whose #1 goal in life is not to think of things new or risky, but the safest option possible.
Combine the "cover-my-ass" urge of the civil servant with huge, conservative, myopically Korean organizations and you get big, unwieldy, and uncreative solutions -- not nimble and effective ones.
Still, what can one expect? The question posed is created by thousands of individual bloggers and message board posters across the Internet, who can smell spin and PR a mile away, but the Institution-Think solution is to either create a web site (lame) or a team of bloggers who will smell like The Man a mile away. In the end? No results.
My constant recommendation?
Pay attention, do the market research, find out who is already creating positive content about Korea. Do everything possible to support those individuals, organizations, entities. Then study them and emulate them. Know enough about the Institution's inherent limitations to pre-emptively offset them, e.g.institutional conservatism, Korean cultural conservatism, cultural bias as Koreans who are not the target market, etc.
Solution to those several sub-problems? The Institution can set the big goals, but the content production should be actually carried out by interested third-parties such as those who are already producing effective content, or a created third-party that is creatively and editorially independent of the Institution.
For example, recognize that the Institution doesn't "get it" and always "gets it" late. Cases-in-point?
-- B-boy culture. When it was fresh and cool to Koreans, the Establishment was busy calling them anti-social miscreants. A decade later, the suits can't get enough of kayageums played with hip-hop beats, or break dancers getting down with ladies in hanboks. But it's too little, too late. When it was cool, it was, ahem, cool. If a suit likes it, it is by definition, not. Sorry, Institution -- your "b-boy meets fan dancer" videos are cliché. Because you like them.
-- Street food stands. These were always one of the top things foreigners liked about Korea. But did anyone ask the foreigners? No. Until as recently as 2002, the Seoul city government was busy trying to ban and get rid of them, lest good white folk see them and think Koreans were dirty or "backwards." Now they're "cultural treasures." Yeah, city government. It only took you, what -- 10 years to figure that out?
-- Hongdae. For better or for worse, this arts and party neighborhood is fun and its a major part of the night life here. It's a good chunk of all that is interesting in Korea. Too bad the city, until the early 2000's, was spending most of its Institutional energy trying to hinder everything fun about it, from liquor licenses in small clubs, the institutionalization of "Club Night" and just about everything else that made the place fun. Now, it's considered a major jewel in the crown of what makes Seoul hip. Yeah, no thanks the Seoul City Government.
I really could go on and on.
Has the point been made? When it comes to knowing what's up, what foreigners like, how to market to them properly, etc. -- the Institution is the last to know. Why doesn't it recognize that weakness and institutionally account for it? Easy thing to do is to support those who know, and emulate them along the way.