Perfect harmony

The New York Philharmonic's historic trip to North Korea required an extraordinary level of coordination by the comms team

With the New York Philharmonic's summer season behind him, director of PR Eric Latzky expected a slow Friday last August 3. What he got was an invitation to North Korea.

Well, not exactly. The actual invitation - faxed from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it is formally known - wouldn't arrive until that weekend. But that Friday, a South Korean wire service - with seemingly excellent sources within the North Korean government - called to ask whether it was true the orchestra would be performing in Pyongyang.

"My instinct was not to take the question seriously, but, of course, we take all inquires from the press seriously," says Latzky. "I said, 'No,' and went home for the weekend."

But Latzky was wrong. That phone call would turn out to be the start of "an extraordinary process," as he calls it, that required the cooperation of two governments with no diplomatic relations, hundreds of international news outlets, a 123-member orchestra, and one PR firm, Rubenstein Communications.

Ultimately, the story would be front-page news all over the world. But first Latzky and his longtime agency had to shepherd 80 journalists to a country with no free press, virtually no Internet access, and very little electricity.

Not surprisingly, communication was the first and most persistent challenge. "You can't communicate with North Korea directly," says Latzky. "There's no Internet. You don't just pick up the phone and call North Korea."

The Philharmonic was forced to communicate with its potential host through that country's permanent mission to the United Nations, its only diplomatic presence in the US. Hence inquiries and requests moved slowly.

The US State Department took an early and active interest, as well. The Philharmonic said immediately it would not go without the State Department's blessing and support, both of which were granted after some early meetings.

Over the next seven months, Latzky would make three trips to the distant, isolated country: On the first, in October, Latzky and his colleagues met with the North Korean Ministry of Culture to discuss their requirements, among them "a live international TV broadcast of the concert, and a significant international press corps joining us on the visit," he says. The North Koreans, clearly eager to make the visit happen, didn't argue.

Latzky returned in January with senior producers from ABC News and CNN to further arrange broadcast and media planning.

Choosing which journalists would get to attend, of course, was its own challenge. The North Koreans determined the number, but otherwise gave the Philharmonic freedom over the process, he adds. Alice McGillion, EVP at Rubenstein, led an agency team that reviewed more than 200 media applications before making recommendations to Latzky.

"It became a question of how the news could reach the broadest possible number of people," says McGillion. "That meant a certain percentage of international reporters, as well as US publications and media outlets." Once the journalists were chosen, another contractor was hired to handle the paperwork to send them overseas, which "was not a small process," she explains.

Indeed, very little about the effort could be described as "a small process." To facilitate the live broadcast, Latzky had to arrange for 19 TV and satellite trucks to drive through the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

"That was a process that involved four different militaries and three different governments," he says.

Latzky also had to establish a working press room where his press corps could file 24 hours a day. The job was contracted to AP Broadcast Services.

When it came time for the actual visit in February, two staffers - Rubenstein's Amy Jacobs and the Philharmonic's Eric Gewirtz - traveled to Pyongyang 48 hours ahead of time to handle advance work. Meanwhile, the press corps gathered in Beijing, where they were instructed on protocol and procedures: No individual exploring would be allowed and the visit would adhere to a strict agenda.

Once on the ground, the visitors were the subject of a press conference that gave them a chance to see the North Korean press in action. And all members of the press were assigned at least one "minder," a person from the Ministry of Culture who would accompany them wherever they went. In between, the press corps was "constantly busy," says Latzky, filing stories - with no restrictions on content imposed by the North Koreans.

And of course, there was the February 26 concert. "I'm not sure everybody anticipated how poignant [it] would be," says Latzky. The Philharmonic opened with its host country's national anthem, followed by The Star-Spangled Banner.

"That's a protocol we follow when visiting a foreign country, but I think the context in this occasion will prove to be memorable for everybody," he adds.

Perhaps most memorable was the end of the concert when, sensing something larger than music had just been exchanged, the orchestra and audience began waving to one another. "That's just not something you see in the context of a formal music concert," says Latzky.

Not surprisingly, the coverage was massive. On the first day there were more than 30 page-one stories in the US alone, and 3,000 individual news pieces. And Latzky says the Philharmonic maintains contact with the North Korean mission.

"If anything can come of this kind of endeavor," he says, "I guess we could hope it would be a greater openness."

Sampling of journalists on the trip


Christiane Amanpour

CNN

Anthony Kuhn
NPR

Melinda Liu

Newsweek

Jean-Jacques Larrochelle

Le Monde

Deborah Kan

Star-TV News Asia

Yoshihisa Kobayashi

Kyodo News America

Jong Sik Kong
The Dong-A Ilbo

Bill Powell
Time

Evan Ramstad
The Wall Street Journal

John Sudworth

BBC News

Daniel Wakin

The New York Times

Bob Woodruff

ABC

Eighty journalists went to North Korea to cover the New York Philharmonic's historic trip

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