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Coming Home: Alumna Returning to Ewha GSIS as a Visiting Professor

Having graduated from the first class of Ewha GSIS since its establishment in 1997, Professor Lee YoungAh has returned this Spring 2022 as a visiting professor. This semester Professor Lee will teach Special Topics in International Relations focusing on Crisis Communication. Her goal is to teach students skills that will be applicable anywhere they are. This interview will give students an inside look into the visiting professor – her journey after graduating from Ewha GSIS, her goals during her professorship at Ewha GSIS, and advice for her students. We hope through this interview current and prospective students will feel encouraged to study until they reach their goals!

Professor Lee YoungAh

Could you please introduce yourself a little bit, especially why you decided to become a visiting professor at Ewha GSIS? And how does it feel to come back to the place where you got your Master’s degree?

I started my graduate study here at Ewha GSIS back in 1997 as a member of the first graduating class. After graduation, I had an internship at the WTO and then pursued my first job in Public Affairs for the New Zealand Embassy in Seoul. Then, I took a deep dive into the communications consulting field and joined one of the largest PR agencies in Seoul. There, I worked with brands like Microsoft, Levi’s, and Häagen-Dazs. After spending some time at that agency, I founded communication consulting firm.

When my daughter was born, I wanted to switch things up a little bit, so I jumped on the plane and got a second master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. I finished my tenure at Ball State University and had the wonderful opportunity to go on sabbatical. I thought a lot about the best use of the time and landed on three goals: refresh, reconnect and revamp. Coming back to GSIS was the best way to achieve these goals.

I love being on the Ewha campus again and seeing all of the young faces full of dreams. I am trying to soak up that energy! Though my old professors are mostly gone, I am grateful to be able to reconnect with my alma mater.

I’d also like to revamp my skills, research topics, and projects. So this semester, I am teaching Crisis Communication to continue expanding and developing my teaching.

Though many years have passed since graduating from GSIS, spending time on campus makes it feel just like yesterday.  I am so excited to share what I have learned and experienced with my alma mater!

Can you please explain more about your area of interest: public relations and the role of reputation through the usage of social networks?

Let’s start with PR. Everyone thinks they know what PR is, but no one can really agree on one definition. My definition is that PR is everything and anything that builds relationships between organizations and their key stakeholders. Our current environment is very challenging. Everything is moving to digital, and the pandemic was also an unforeseen factor. So understanding the dynamics of stakeholder relationships, environmental risk, and issues, and then explaining those dynamics using a theoretical lens has become so much more important.

Social media data has so much potential to empirically test a wide range of questions – how people interact with each other, how stakeholder groups amplify their voice, and bring up policy and public opinion changes. As well as how boycotters and supporters of certain brands really form their own groups on social media, and whether there are any trends or patterns to explain the division in the digital sphere. This is all very interesting to me, especially as I can expand theoretical premises with empirical datasets. I have been using social media analysis tools since 2016 to really visualize polarized opinions around certain issues or brands.

To give an example, nowadays people and society expect brands to speak up about very sensitive social issues. Back in 2018 in the US, Nike and Budweiser were taking public stances about racial inequality and immigration. These two big brands were experiencing a tremendous amount of both pushback and support. This is called Corporate Social Activism. I was able to compare how boycotters and supporters build and amplify their voices in the digital sphere. I observed that some boycotters for Nike were not only talking to like-minded people but were also trying to touch into digital communities on the opposite political spectrum by constantly inserting their hashtags and breaking up the different group’s voices. It was fascinating to see how polarized opinions can be tested on the most current issues through social media – this is the kind of research I am currently working on.

This semester you are offering the course ‘Special Topics in International Relations’, can you please describe your teaching method and anything in particular that makes your teaching method stand out, especially in this course?

There are so many top-notch professors at GSIS, so I’m embarrassed to say that I will stand out. I would say that I bring a practitioner’s viewpoint into the classroom that is explained by theory. I think heavily about how theoretical arguments can help future practice or application. I believe that, especially for this course, Crisis Communication, what we learn will not just stay in the classroom. 

I know that wherever our students go after this program, they will serve as leaders for their organizations and will have to learn how to deal with different types of crises.

So I’d like to teach them about crises and how to work through the process of prevention, preparation, response, and revision. That cycle will be explained with cases and theories. We will also do simulations so that it’s not just theory or just cases – it’s the best of both worlds. I also hope that we will be able to build collaborative communities within the classroom. 

That brings me to my next point. I want to build a collaborative and respectful environment in my classroom, so my students can feel very safe and free to share and develop their own opinions. I think a large difference between undergrad and graduate programs is that you start to form your own thesis at graduate school. To bring that out, I think it is very important to create that comfortable space as to push students to think deeper and more extensively. This thinking will be encouraged through various discussions, and simulations, exercises, assignments, and case studies. That’s my goal and I hope my students will be able to learn from the experiences that I build for them.

Do you have any concerns about starting the new role in this new environment in Ewha GSIS?

I just hope that I will be able to help my students as best as I can. To do that, both I and my students should stay healthy. I know our numbers are increasing, so I really hope our students will be able to stay healthy and come to our class discussions. 

Professor Lee YoungAh

Could you please give any tips on how to become a productive researcher? As some of the Master’s students often think that they are not good enough to write something worthwhile, some words of encouragement along with tips would be beneficial.

The reason we do research is to describe, explain, or predict social phenomena. So I think we have to know why we are working on this particular research topic. Once you zone into a particular objective, it gets much easier and almost mechanical. There are certain rules to writing a research paper, and these can be learned by reading many research papers in your field of interest. Of course, there is so much information that it can get very overwhelming. The key is to find papers that are highly relevant to your topic and analyze how the author expands or tests the argument. You want to be able to identify how the hypothesis was tested and how it was written. You can mimic the mechanic and methods to fit your unique research by learning from existing literature.

Don’t get discouraged – GSIS students are very fortunate to have great professors as mentors, and you should definitely ask for help. All of the students at GSIS are brilliant and capable, but it is good to find a mentor to receive guidance doing research and support beyond research as well.

For those interested in the crossroads of public relations and business goals, could you please share a reading list?

PR and marketing are merging because everything has gone digital. The two fields are growing to be similar, but it is still important that you understand the ideas and concepts unique to each field and combine them. You should read widely about the principles of both PR and business principles.

“Everybody Writes”

By Ann Handley

One’s good writing skill is valued in both the PR and Business field. This book offers not only rules of persuasive writing but also practical lessons that can be applied to all digital spaces. 

“Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”

By Sheryl Sandberg.

I highly recommend this book for a woman starting a PR or Business job where collaboration is essential. Sandberg helps her readers to understand the complexities of the workforce. Her personal stories of leading Facebook and struggle with her husband’s passing add a more realistic view of intricate work and life. 

“The New Rules of Marketing and PR”

By David Meerman Scott

This book is a very popular guide and action plan for both PR and marketing practitioners who are using digital platforms to build relationships and interests for brands. Readers will be able to see the overlap between the two functions and also the practice of PR and marketing in action. 

From your perspective in the Public Relations field, what are the interesting trends or issues that, if we would like to continue to work in this field, we should be familiar with?

The paradigm of PR has evolved and expanded. To lead organizational activities, build relationships, and build corporate culture, you must have many tools to collect data. You need to have research skills at hand, and utilize focus groups, interviews, surveys, and social media data, to have a strategic advantage out in the workforce. Everything is moving towards automation, but something that will remain is the turning of information into knowledge. In our field, the information is about human knowledge – how people feel, how people form opinions, and how their lifestyle and expectations change. Understanding and turning that knowledge into effective messages and strategies is very specific to PR. This is what PR and Marketing students should be practicing.

Do you have any advice or something to say to the students at Ewha GSIS as an alumna and now, professor?

I was very blessed to be a part of the first class, as I was granted generous scholarships, overseas internship opportunities, and close relationships with professors. I have no complaints about my experience at GSIS, but looking back, I wish I had spent more time exploring my interests and digging deeper into what really excites me. I think you have to spend more time to find your niche area that no one else can claim but yourself. You can write a paper about it and participate in a competition outside of GSIS, or you can initiate a campaign with your fellow students and professors. I know you are all busy and that there are so many things pulling you in different directions, but I think that it is critical that you explore and build your own niche area before you graduate.

Any last comments?

As I said, I have a daughter. She’s a freshman in college, so a little younger than GSIS students. Still, when I look at GSIS students, I think about my daughter and myself 20 years ago. I know how trying this time is for everyone – it is not easy to complete everything you are expected to do here. But remember to love yourself and your neighbor as yourself throughout the hardship.

Professor Lee YoungAh

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