[Justin Fendos] Government fails at public relations

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 17, 2019 - 17:04
  • Updated : Feb 17, 2019 - 17:04

I asked some university students a few weeks ago about President Moon’s economic policies. By far, the most common response was: “I don’t know what they are doing.” Because this statement was made with a variety of emotions like exasperation and indifference, I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. It was only later I realized it was meant to be taken literally.

My curiosity piqued, I convened a second discussion. Most students knew, of course, there had been a recent minimum wage increase. Not one, however, felt they could confidently explain why the government had implemented it. One disgruntled student halfheartedly suggested it was a political ploy for getting elected.

To see how they would respond to an alternative possibility, I asked them about South Korea’s income structure. Specifically, I asked them to guess how much of Korea’s income was earned by the top 10 percent. The average of all the answers was 28 percent. When I revealed the actual figure, 45 percent, a handful responded immediately, saying, “That’s crazy.”

I then asked what percentage of Korean elderly were living in poverty. The average answer was 22 percent. When I gave the actual figure, 48 percent, there was another round of “That’s crazy.”

Next, I asked how many Koreans in their 40s and 50s were on track to live in poverty at retirement age. The room became very quiet. I was, in essence, asking about their parents. Student guesses averaged 59 percent, close to the actual 68 percent.

With this information in hand, I prompted the students to pretend being president. “How would you fix the problem?” I asked. Most reluctantly agreed the solution had to involve some improvements in basic income. The whole conversation took about 12 minutes.

The point I wish to make is not that Moon’s policies are necessarily correct. Even OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria suggested last week that the minimum wage hike might have been implemented too quickly. Instead, the more important point for me is that the government has been doing a bad job communicating with the public. The public deserves to know what the government is doing and why. Yet the reasons for its actions have failed to be conveyed, resulting in various levels of frustration, confusion and disappointment.

After my conversation with the students, my attention was drawn to a JTBC debate that aired Jan. 2 and pitted critics of Moon’s policies against Kim Sung-jo, chair of the Korea Fair Trade Commission. In theory, this was a tantalizing opportunity to rebut criticisms through public dialogue. But here too, one witnessed abject failure as Kim regularly gave long and jargon-filled responses that most people would have found difficult to understand. His constant apologies also made him look untrustworthy, despite decades of economic experience.

A week later, I noticed government infomercials appearing on YouTube. They cast the comedian Jang Do-yun in a series of interviews called “Long-terview.” One episode had Jang interviewing Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jae-gap. Much to my chagrin, his answers were also long, jargon-filled and difficult to follow. Another missed opportunity.

From a public relations perspective, the government is making serious missteps by showcasing government officials as spokespersons. Most have worked in government for extended periods, becoming accustomed to the use of jargon and politically correct speech that may be appropriate internally but not for public discourse. Even my students agreed that amateur commentators on YouTube were easier to understand, highlighting a baseline for considering contemporary media interactions.

If the Moon administration really wants to improve dialogue with the public, it will need to first learn a new voice, one that explains things clearly and simply, engendering trust and confidence. Otherwise, the next generation of voters, my students, will be at risk of feeling marginalized by their government -- confused and angry because they don’t know what’s going on.

Justin Fendos
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in Busan and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.