Korea’s Public Relations Expat Experts

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Edge Communications Agency: The Korean PR Firm Run by Expats

10 Questions with Jeffrey Bohn and Eric Thorpe

PR, Korea PR Agency, Jeffrey Bohn, Eric Thorpe
Shot by Matt Douma

Public relations in Korea, as anywhere, is a much maligned and very competitive industry. Starting a small business is a challenge in any country, and Korea is no exception, with unique trials of its own. To get the full scoop, 10 Magazine sat down with two long-term expats in the field to ascertain what it took for PR’s Mad Men to become successful over the last seven years. Dreams, determination, expertise, friendship, and a top-notch Korean team were all part of the equation to help them gain that EDGE in communications.

Public Relations Firm Background

1. What experience did you have in PR before this partnership?

Jeffrey Bohn (JB): I have been working in the field of public relations and communications for over 15 years on both the corporate and agency side. Prior to setting up Edge Communications in 2008, I worked for the Korea office of Hill & Knowlton for several years and for Lucent Technologies in the U.S.  

Eric Thorpe (ET): Before Edge, I did a lot of corporate communications freelancing here in Korea. Prior to that, I had business development stints with a Silicon Valley company and Rockwell Collins, an avionics company. I started my career as a flight test engineer with McDonnell Douglas, which is now part of Boeing. You may ask what an aerospace engineer is doing in PR, and I’ll say I had a lot of writing practice in putting together test reports.

2. How long have you each been in Korea and how is your Korean?

JB: I have lived and worked in Korea for over 18 years since 1989 when I first arrived with a short stint in the UK for graduate school from 1997-99 and in the U.S. for work from 1999-2005. The time away from Korea was quite beneficial as it gave me a chance to grow personally, get an MBA and gain valuable work experience on the corporate side. As for my Korean capability, it is proficient and enables me to do whatever I need to do. Basically, enough to get into trouble or stay out of trouble.

ET: I’ve been here about 15 years over two occasions and my Korean should be better than it is, considering. I’m one of those guys who didn’t expect to be here very long as I was more of a Japan guy. It’s funny how things turned out.

3. How did you two meet?

JB: Eric and I met back in 1993 through a very good friend of ours and we have been close ever since. At that time, I was managing a chain of foreign language schools in Seoul and Eric came over to join me. Eric had his MBA and could have done anything, but in the end decided that public relations in Korea was a great opportunity. Over-qualified, definitely, but we did have a great time as Korea was like an extension of college with money. From that point, we developed a friendship and a working relationship, and have maintained a close connection to Korea.

Why an Agency for Public Relations in Korea?

4. What made you both choose Korea as the place to ply your PR expertise?

ET: Korea simply made sense to me. I was between jobs in Tokyo when I realized I had some excellent contacts over here who encouraged me to get into communications. I had a lot business experience in Asia and was very comfortable coming back to Seoul.

JB: Korea was a natural choice with all the business and cultural experience we have accumulated over the years. Running a business in Korea is not just about one’s business knowledge, but is also about having a deep understanding of Korean business practices and employee management, as well as strong contacts across different business sectors. We have done well with this but still have a long way to go in terms of improvement.

Shot by Matt Dourma

5. Don’t you find it difficult to practice PR in a foreign country?

JB: No not really. At Edge, we have a great balance of East and West. Our Korean team is truly outstanding and specializes in communications and media strategy. Coupled with a strong business acumen and vast media contacts across industry sectors, the team excels at providing high level consultation to all of our clients. For our outbound Korean clients, Eric and myself have solid relationships with the international media and have worked for years positioning our clients globally. We intentionally set Edge up like this and it is one of our greatest strengths and drivers for success.

ET: Although it can be challenging, I received my MBA from Thunderbird, an international business school in Arizona which teaches every class from a global perspective. It’s natural for those of us with degrees from there to be doing business overseas, and we have a great network we can rely on for support in just about every country. Jeffrey also has an international MBA from Henley Business School in the UK, and our education, as well as experience, has helped us a lot.

Public Relations in Seoul & Korea

6. What are the biggest challenges that foreign firms in particular face when trying to get the word out about their service or product in Korea?

JB: Probably expectations and their need for immediate results. Unless it’s a specific project, public relations in Korea really needs to be executed in a sustained approach, one that helps firms build their brand awareness and product/service awareness in the Korean market. The Korean consumer, whether B2B or B2C, is quite sophisticated and knowledgeable and requires quality information and data in regards to the attributes and benefits of what is being offered.

ET: I think there’s a misperception that foreign entities can’t get their messages heard here. Our experience is that Korean journalists will give proper voice to the messages of our clients once they have a clear understanding.

Gaining that Korean PR Edge

7. What is the greatest strength of Edge Communications?

JB: Again, it’s our team and the way we set up Edge Communications. Our Korean PR team members are just tremendous. We have benefited from low turnover and all of our team have been with us for the long haul. This has enabled us to provide high quality service and consistently deliver results for our clients.

ET: We also have a great network partner, Grayling, which is based in London and has offices worldwide. They keep us in touch with global best practices and we have worked together to serve numerous multinational clients.

8. PR itself is much criticized when it comes to an industry. Aren’t you just shills for the corporatocracy?

ET: PR is like “The Force”–it can be used for good or bad. Like everyone I know in this profession, we get the good word out about some great organizations and the people who work for them. We play a satisfying role in that.

JB: Yeah, public relations is often misunderstood. It is sometimes thought of as fluff, hype, propaganda, and spin, along with many other colorful words. There are also those who think you just call up a journalist and tell them what to write. This isn’t how it works and is actually the farthest thing from the truth. PR is a designed and planned activity to build and enhance reputation, perception and image among key stakeholders. It’s a lot of strategy, writing, and work.

9. Have you ever been asked to promote something that you refused to promote?

JB: No, nothing really sensitive has come our way fortunately. One area, however, we might shy away from is a political campaign due to the win-lose outcome and the fact that you become tied to a specific party. Better to stay out of politics.

ET: We have taken on all comers so far.

10. What do you have planned for the future of Edge Communications?

JB: To continue to develop and improve our offering so that we can continue to grow. Also, to continue to have fun and enjoy what we are doing. This is very important and was one of our dreams when we set up the company.

ET: We’re always looking to get bigger and better at Edge, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.