Alex Jensen from KBLA speaks to Eric Thorpe and Jeffrey Bohn, Managing Partners and Co-founders of Edge Communications, a Seoul-based Public Relations firm that has just celebrated its fourteenth anniversary.
The firm differentiates itself from other PR firms through building a culture of work-life balance in its team. This builds consistency and quality in their client services as well as allowing relationships to deepen.
As Jeff puts it, he was asked by a client one day to, “Give us a reason to hire you.” His answer was that “It really comes down to the individual at the time in the room. You’re sitting there and you’re looking across at the people who are going to be working with you, can they establish and maintain those relationships that are really going to make the difference to your business.” In Jeff’s view, PR companies are all cut the same way. They propose similar things, in a similar fashion so it’s the people on your team, and their ability to build better relationships.
From Eric’s perspective, Edge’s other point of differentiation is blending their strong business acumen with content and writing skills. As Eric says, “There is a misconception that public relations firms need to be run by journalists, because it’s about content, and writing. While content and writing is obviously important, you also need to be able to communicate, share your expertise and advise strategically by utilizing business acumen across industry sectors. I think that’s what really cuts through and makes the difference in terms of relationships.”
A great company culture, commitment to long-term relationships, excellent communications content and strategic advice. These are the skills that Edge Communications has built since 2004.
Today’s episode is brought to you by The Four Seasons Hotel Seoul. Stylish Elegance in the very heart of the city.
D-2 Korean Presidential Election: Merger, Major Pledges & Record Early Voting
Alex Jenson 0:08
You’re listening to koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m your host, Alex Jensen, and it’s Tuesday, April 26. First let me just thank for making today’s episode possible the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, offering stylish elegance in the very heart of the city. Now, our guests today are a duo who you’ve probably seen at events in Seoul, especially if you were here in Korea before the pandemic. But even since then they’ve been big supporters of a wide range of events and activities, and are very much involved in a variety of networks, which is very handy in PR, their line of business. Eric Thorpe and Jeffrey bohn, managing partners of edge Communications. Thank you both for being on koreabizcast today.
Eric Thorpe 0:51
Thank you very much, Alex. Great to be here.
Jeffrey Bohn 0:54
Thanks, Alex. Thanks for having us.
Alex Jenson 0:56
I’m going to be relying on both of you to speak more than me as I’ve lost my voice at somewhat over the weekend. But perhaps we can start with Edge recently celebrating 14 years since being founded on April 1 2008. No, April Fool about it. Tell us more about the company and how you got started perhaps beginning with you, Eric?
Eric Thorpe 1:17
Yeah, well, both of us were here since we returned it to create about 2004 and, and five. And we were doing we both quickly got into the communications field. And we’re working for different firms doing doing kind of different things. And both of us realized that we could do better if we had our own firm. So that provided the impetus to plan it and get something going
Alex Jenson 1:51
And for you, Jeffrey. Just to elaborate then you and Eric both had this long history in Korea, and and got together to start this company. How did that come about?
Jeffrey Bohn 2:01
Well, I came to I first came to Korea in 1989. And, you know, I worked my way through I worked for a consulting company early on, mainly focusing on joint ventures between Korean and, you know, international companies, you know, and that sort of just more through the years. And as Eric said, When we returned in 2004, 2005, we both both worked in, you know, different roles, I worked for a global communication company handling their global outbound their global network side. And, you know, I think for both of us, we both realized we reached the limits of where we were going to go. So I think we decided to roll the dice and, and start edge.
Alex Jenson 2:55
14 year dice roll has obviously proven to be very fruitful for you. And I’m sure now you’re feeling a lot more certain about things before we sort of fast forward and get to where you’re at today. I’d like to ask you both a bit more about the opportunity that you saw when you were starting out because that was a very different korea, even 14 years ago, let alone when you first arrived in the 80s
Eric Thorpe 3:19
Oh, sure. post, post IMF, or, you know, the IMF era, what they call it, but they call the financial crisis of 1997-88. You know, think things were starting to boom by 2004. When, when I came back here. And this, the market recovered quite well. The firms that stayed here, did even better, you know, some some of the foreign firms left in 1998. I think that was a big mistake. So we at the time, there’s there’s quite a bit of opportunity. In my personal case, I was doing some part time work for a large PR firm. And I saw in it. They were missing some opportunities by not using my advice. So as a guy who had been in business for a while and knew American companies fairly well. Also had an MBA, I saw a need to use foreign staff better. And, you know, in both of us talking together we realized well we can we can set that up ourselves if we’re in control and, and make the best of, you know, the western side and the Korean side of business. Knowing when our you know, what our Korean staff would be very good at and using them for that such as, you know, media relations and talk, you know, managing Korean custody First, things like that.
Alex Jenson 5:02
So Jeffrey, who were your earliest clients? And what sort of services were you providing for them just to, again, go a little deeper into the side of media relations and, and perhaps the other things they were most often asking for when they came to you?
Jeffrey Bohn 5:18
Well, Alex, I’d like to just, you know, follow on a little bit with what Eric was saying. We also, in terms of the why, you know, we really what I saw on the public relations side from in Korea’s, you know, the teams and where I came from, they work long hours, sometimes till 10-11 o’clock at night. So we, you know, we really saw a quality of life, opportunity to build on, you know, creating that work lifestyle balance, right. You know, where we were putting people first and hearing to their needs, and their wants to build a strong team, you know, to move that forward. And I think you highlight on a key point, because, you know, we, when we started the business, we hit another financial crisis in 2008. So here we go, we roll the dice, we start this business, and then, you know, the global financial crisis hits. And we were like, holy cow, I mean, you know, this is, and so it was a tough go. So I’m in for a sir, survival was the name of the game. But luckily, we had some good clients. From the get go that we built on, we quickly established a relationship with publicists, consultants, out of France, and we worked with the likes of Michelin and a few other large clients that really carried us through that financial crisis, to move things forward. And get through that, but I, you know, those were trying times, we were a fledgling company, but as you can see, we’re able to survive.
Alex Jenson 7:05
And how much has that service range changed? Like, at its core? Is it the same type of thing for the same type of companies that you’re working with? Or has it transformed massively in 14 years?
Jeffrey Bohn 7:18
Well, you know, the way I see it is when we initially started, you know, we had to focused on focus on projects. So that was project based clients, you know, we were trying to build our brand, obviously, and that was the name of the game early on. So I would say, you know, the change really came from when, you know, as for being project focus, you know, taking spot projects, working for different clients on just regular things, after about four or five years that change to what we call Retainer based clients. And that really comes through building the relationships with clients, and taking a long term approach to communication is towards as opposed to just be the project based approach.
Alex Jenson 8:13
On that note, I wanted to ask you, Eric, how you go about building client relationships. As I mentioned, at the start, I was very conscious, I have been very conscious for many years that, that you guys are so active, you got active social lives, but I presume it’s not only about fun, it’s also about meeting all sorts of different people. So what’s the business difference in the philosophy for you guys?
Eric Thorpe 8:38
I think understanding the client, of course, is very key. And what what they are trying to do here in Korea, and getting the message off, out to their, you know, their customers. So that just entails in a very good feel for their business. And then knowing what they’re looking for what their marketing side is looking for, or the specific communications person is looking for. And getting to know them well and delivering making them look good. Jeffrey may have something to add to that.
Alex Jenson 9:18
Yeah. Jeff, join for a minute.
Jeffrey Bohn 9:19
Yeah, you know, thanks, Alex. You know, it during my time with with a global communications firm, we were actually in a pitch. And at the end of the pitch, the client asked us okay, well, what all you do the PR firms seem similar and approach right? So what different so they asked us what differentiates you so that you could really, you know, give us a reason to hire you. And the the senior individual at the time in the room basically said, it really comes down to you. You’re sitting here and you’re looking across at the people who are going to be working with you, and it comes down to your personal feeling, and your perception of those individuals, and who you feel you can establish that relationship is what’s really going to be key and make the difference, because PR companies are cut the same way. You know, they propose similar things they quote in similar fashion, you know, it might slightly differ. But, you know, for the most part, it’s similar. And, you know, that kind of struck with me the whole time. And so I think for Eric and I, we felt with the strong business background, strong business acumen building teams that fit within that mold, to deliver quality across the board, and, you know, to clients, and then to, you know, at the end of the day, when we finished, whether it was a project or things we did during a retainer, they were happy and pleased with with the approach and what we delivered. And that’s where it really came from. I think another factor is, you know, at that time, when we started the business, there was this, I think, misconception that public relations firms are built on, okay, well, they need to be run by journalists, because it’s about content, and writing, and we found that to be quite different. It’s not just, obviously, content and writing is important. But we felt that you needed when you’re sitting in the room at the table with clients, it’s not just about content and writing, it’s being able to communicate, effectively, you know, from utilizing business acumen and knowledge of industries across sectors to deliver expertise to clients, and become advisors to clients. And I think that’s what really cuts through and makes the difference in terms of relationships.
Alex Jenson 11:59
And on the crisis side, Eric, do you find that that is shifted at all? Are there more clients, for example, today who are like, Oh, we’re in trouble, we’ve got a problem with public perception of Korea? Or is that something that’s evolved differently over time?
Eric Thorpe 12:15
Well, I’m not so sure. It’s any worse than it was before. If you think back to some of the big cases, like Lone Star or some of the other sovereign wealth, but But yes, it’s still it’s still there. And I think a lot of companies nowadays are more in tune as to, you know, how to do business here and create the right perceptions. But yes, occasionally, you know, one of our clients comes to us or we get referred by a law firm or something. And we do have to help out, usually doesn’t get to the crisis stage. It’s usually more of an issue. But you Yeah, sorry. expertise comes in handy on that. Once in a while, not too often,
Alex Jenson 13:06
Would you say Jeffrey, that that actually can be a big difference between success and failure in Korea having the right firm to work with, I’m sort of hesitant to pick out too many specific examples. I’m not sure of all the people that you’ve been involved with. But one example that comes to mind is, for example, the Uber story in Korea. Around the world, it’s been a success story, but in Korea, they face a lot of opposition. And I sort of wonder if they’ve done things slightly differently, whether they might have turned out more successful?
Jeffrey Bohn 13:36
Well, you know, it’s it’s hard to say on the Uber case, because you had a huge domestic number or population of taxi drivers, right, that the government was seeking to protect at that point. So maybe they could have done things differently by taking a look at you know, we always advise clients, you know, you have to look at Korea and what the needs are in Korea, not just what you want, right? Because you have to understand the Korean market in the way to go to develop an effective strategy. And perhaps they tried to push their model a little bit too much, rather than doing the necessary research to kind of, you know, figure out the correct way forward, and it can be a little bit different. I always liken this to when former Lee Myung bak when he became president. He said, You know, he traveled to the US and he made he met then President Bush, and President Bush said, of course, we want you to buy more US beef and he said, okay, and he came back and then immediately he pushed the agenda to buy US beef without really thinking it through. And he got a huge backlash from the from the general population who wasn’t ready for About. So sometimes you need to slow down the process, create a communicating communication strategy to ease things in taking into consideration some of the domestic concerns. So that’s just, I guess one thing, Eric was quite right there or, you know, crisis issue, we tend to look at things as issue communication. And, you know, just to carry a little bit forward on that, I mean, you know, issues can be managed, through scanning the media through monitoring, keep your finger on the pulse of what you see, provide strategic analysis to the client, and then decide, you know, when you need to issue statements and, and, and put things out from a communication perspective, but rarely with our clients, have we seen things escalate into a crisis? A crisis is a different ballgame, that’s 24/7. You know, that you’re on and you’re really, you’re working things from different angles, and the law firms come in and it gets gets very complicated, you know, as you move forward, but like I said, I don’t think we see too much of that from from, from a crisis standpoint, in terms of our clients, they communicate effectively and do things, right. They, you know, issues do arise, but they tend to stay out of the crisis mode.
Alex Jenson 16:21
The other thing has happened over the last 14 years is the development of social media. And, for example, when you’ve got public perception, turning massively against a particular product, whether it be USB or something else. My sense is that a statement alone or a press release is going to be a big challenge to change the mind of the people, if you like. And maybe it’s impossible to maybe that’s perhaps one of the first realizations is well, you know, we’re not going to change all their minds, in a short period of time. But drawing the conversation in the direction of social media, how do you feel that’s changed your work?
Jeffrey Bohn 16:56
Yeah, social media is, is create a lot of challenges, because things travel very quickly in a communication sentence, right. So it’s hard for PR companies to keep up with it, as you said, you know, in terms of issuing a traditional statement in that, but those statements can be put out on company on social media channels, and can be pushed out through different ways in the in the social media sphere. You know, I mean, people are the power nowadays with social media, and now their own journalists, and they communicate, you have multi directional communication. It’s, it’s quite a powerful tool, you know, in, in the communication sphere, you know, and how that affects, you know, as you say, certain issues or certain related things. But, you know, looking at it from a from a communication or publicity standpoint, I mean, clients, they all want to get involved in social media. And so they will engage us and say, Well, hey, can you set up social media channels and this and that, we say, yeah, we can do that. And they’re like, Okay, great. Yeah, let’s do that. We want that. And then when you tell them, okay, well, you need to develop the content, to build the audience, and things of that nature. And they’re like, Oh, really, wow, this is time consuming. Okay, so they take a different view. And it’s kind of like, we have to tell them, well, you need to feed the beast. If you build the channels, you have to feed feed the animal, you have to you have to continue to populate it with updated new information, or, you know, people won’t visit your sites. And it really comes down to that. And then, you know, from the content side, you know, pushing out things that make sense that cut through, you know, and deliver the right messages, the angles, the facts, things that you really want to communicate.
Alex Jenson 18:59
And from a practical perspective for you guys, are you when you’re talking about foreign firms coming into the Korean market? Is that something then that you’re having to rely heavily on Korean staff to work on in order to deliver those messages effectively to the Korean public? Or does it sometimes also work the other way where as a Korean firm looking to reach out to the outside world in English?
Eric Thorpe 19:22
Well, certainly, we have several clients that don’t have a strong presence here. And we do manage their social media accounts. So yes, Korean staff are crucial for that. They they have to maintain they have to translate a lot of the content or develop original content. And of course, you know, answer any inquiries that pop up on the social media channel.
Alex Jenson 19:51
Jeffrey, this basic question about companies in Korea versus from the outside looking in. Is that is an area we’ve also seen evolution in. And if you were starting edge right now, today, if you’re rolling the dice in 2022, is there a bigger opportunity in one of those areas or the other? And would you kind of recommend starting PR company today to focus on one or the other?
Jeffrey Bohn 20:17
Well, I mean as edge we’re about 80%, multinational foreign multinational inbound to Korea. 20%, you know, working with Korean firms going outbound, but I would suggest that I think the growth of Korean companies, especially in the startup, SME, midsize sector is growing. And they have needs for outbound communication as well. This goes back to when we founded the company, I mean, we decided to start it up to create a balance of East and West. And with that, I mean, it all started internally, it’s people first, you have to build the strong staff, you have to build the bilingual capability. And then always put quality first. You know, you know, sort of because when the when the foreign multinationals come in, their target is the domestic Korean audience. And then, you know, first and foremost, that’s going to be with the Korean media, they don’t care about the English based media. So with that said, I mean, we’ve we built teams that have expertise and experience in, in Korean media, and capability to deliver on that ad now, with that said, they can also deliver in communicating with clients. You know, there’s also the communication aspect with the clients abroad. Right. And, you know, when you have staff that are built, to handle both ways, then they can communicate with clients effectively, internationally, but yet deliver on the Korean side domestically. That’s, that’s the winning ticket.
Alex Jenson 22:05
So we talked a little bit about social media, let’s kind of conclude with more of a future looking attitude on other forms of technology. Do you guys feel any particular pressure to integrate AI into communications, big data, other applications using buzzwords that are all over the place these days? Or again, do you feel that the core actually is less about that and more about making strategic decisions and then focusing on which tools are the best?
Eric Thorpe 22:36
Yeah, sure. It is still fairly traditional. We may have different tools and we use social media is certainly much more prevalent now than it was when we started. But But yes, I think it’s the fundamentals of the business have changed it’s it’s providing good advice to our clients and getting their messages across to the target audiences here in Korea. And you know, can can we use AI for that I you know, not at the moment but who knows what will happen later?
Jeffrey Bohn 23:13
Yeah, well, this comes down to you know, we had web.1.0 and then we morphed to web.2.0 and now we’re we’re sort of seeing the shift to web.3.0 right, which is really, which is really the semantic web. Right. And, you know, the semantic web incorporates a lot of number of different things. I mean, it deals with AI, which, you know, in PR, and a lot of big global PR companies are using, you know, the AI bots for, you know, kind of scanning data and data analysis and things of that nature. So that can be really useful for PR moving forward. But as Eric said, it’s still a real, it’s still really a face to face, human interaction aspect with clients. But I mean with, you know, with web three Dotto, you’re gonna see things coming online. Not only AI, but also 3d graphics. Things will become more ubiquitous, you know, you have blockchain chain technologies, you have decentralization, that’s taking place. And then, you know, you have real advanced sort of computing development with apps and, you know, I guess, use of old digital devices from smart smartphones and devices that will be developed over time. So yes, can we use this? Yes, as we move forward, but I would agree with Eric that I think it’s still traditional approaches as we’re dealing with it now. But I think we have to be ready for these changes, and be able to morph as they as they arise.
Alex Jenson 25:00
Jeffrey and Eric, I think this is been a wonderful opportunity to get both of your views after so much experience in this area in Korea and and the country generally speaking. Normally, because of the variety of events that I’ve seen you and your own various interests, it’s, it’s possible to kind of move in all different tangents. So thank you for this focus, look at what edge communications does and absolutely wish you all the best for another 14 years plus.
Eric Thorpe 25:29
Thanks very much, Alex. It’s been a pleasure. Yes, Alex,
Jeffrey Bohn 25:32
Thank you for your time with us today. This has been great.
Alex Jenson 25:36
And I want to thank everyone for joining us on this Tuesday. If you want to get in touch and offer any particular feedback or perhaps share your story, send us an email email@example.com Or find us on LinkedIn by searching KBLA and one more thank you and that is a big one to our sponsor the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul for making the latest episode possible.