How NOT to do media relations

One of the facets of the Korean media environment that overseas companies find it most difficult to understand is the wide use of anonymous “sources” that provide – occasionally accurate – information to reporters. For executives who come from an environment in which media relations are usually coordinated through a designated office and approved spokespersons, the fact that literally anyone in the company would talk to a third party about the internal operations of the company is quite incomprehensible.

Long time residents of Korea understand that this is in part a function of the widely extended networks that characterize Korean society – “I had to give him the information because he’s my senior” is a rationale that will be quite understandable and even acceptable to a Korean boss but will make an expatriate manager see red.

From another perspective, however, Korean companies really need to start formalizing their media relationships. As the Internet massively restricts the amount of time a reporter has to research and write a story, it is important for companies to ensure that their that inaccurate or sensitive material is not leaked into the media and thence online.

A cautionary tale in this respect appears in todays DongA Ilbo relating to the leak of an internal report on Presidential hopeful Lee Myung-bak’s grand canal project. Following speculation of Blue House involvement, the leak was eventually traced to Kim Sang-woo, the Executive Director at the K-Water Corporation who leads the research and planning team that wrote the report. Kim Sang-woo passed the report to Kim Hyun-joong, a friend from the Seoul National University Advanced Management Program and the CEO of a matchmaking service company.

According to the newspaper:

The police agency was told that Kim [Hyun-joong] handed the report over to a weekly paper reporter who is his acquaintance at a hotel coffee shop in Seoul on June 1. Kim Sang-woo stated, “Kim [Hyun-joong] said that he is very interested in political matters and the Gyeongbu canal, and I just passed it over to him when he wanted to see it. That’s all [emphasis mine].” Kim Hyun-joong said, “I delivered a copy to the weekly paper reporter because he showed his interest in the canal [emphasis mine].

The fact that Kim Sang-woo seems to think that the dissemination of a confidential report to an acquaintance with no connection to the organization he represents is a rather trivial think should be worrying enough for that organization. That a third party would then indiscriminately distribute that report to the media should have every Korean organization reviewing its internal and external communications protocols.

It’s not enough to say simply that media requests must go through the communications team – corporate cultures need to ensure that everyone at every level fully understands his or her responsibilities with regard to the privileged information to which they are party during course of their working day.

Fortunately for K-Water, this incident has so far had a negative outcome only for the two individuals involved. However, it is not difficult to see how a similar lack of discipline regarding a confidential report on the organization’s own activities could have severe and lasting consequences for that organization’s reputation.

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