A big PR deal Hong Kong doesn’t need

July 01, 2020 09:21
Photo: Bloomberg

Finally, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was able to secure the services of a public relations firm to help rebuild the city’s shattered international image.

You will recall that her administration reached out to eight global PR agencies late last year for the job of restoring Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial hub following months of civil unrest, but most of the companies reportedly begged off, giving the impression that the task, despite the obviously lucrative reward, was sort of a mission impossible.

Money was no object, as far as the Hong Kong SAR government was concerned. But the PR firms, despite their reputed ability to turn the blackest black into gleaming white, might have thought that taking up the challenge could only damage their reputation and thus undermine their business prospects in the long term.

Now here comes this London and Middle East-based firm called Consulum that got the one-year, US$6.29 million contract, and industry watchers eagerly sought out its credentials.

Media investigation showed that it is run by Matthew Gunther Bushell and Tim Ryan, former executives at Bell Pottinger, a British PR consultancy that collapsed three years ago after it was accused of stoking racial animosity in South Africa for the benefit of a client.

Among Consulum’s most prominent clients was the Saudi Arabian government, which reportedly paid millions to spruce up its image following the murder of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

That just goes to show that this firm is not easily intimidated by the enormity of the task at hand and, in fact, appears to welcome such challenges – the more formidable, the better, as it means bigger returns.

According to the government’s Information Services Department, Consulum won the “Relaunch Hong Kong” campaign tender to tell the whole world that the city is back on its feet after having addressed the COVID-19 catastrophe.

So the focus now, it seems, is to highlight the city’s economic recovery after having dealt with the coronavirus outbreak, and not so much the political crisis brought about by months of anti-government protests.

The government said it had received seven bids for the deal, although according to reports, some big companies such as Edelman and MSL had decided not the take part in the tender exercise.

Anyway, Consulum won, and it is tasked to develop a communications strategy that will help counter negative international perceptions and come up with a marketing and advertising plan “to highlight Hong Kong’s recovery and help rebuild confidence in Hong Kong as a place to invest, do business, work and live”.

Some PR industry players are not quite happy with the choice, noting that Consulum is caught up in its own controversies and, as such, association with the company might only do more harm than good for Hong Kong.

Despite the government’s focus on its efforts to recover from the coronavirus fallout, the biggest task for Consulum is to reassure the global community that Hong Kong remains a free society where judicial independence and the rule of law still hold supreme.

It would take a lot of convincing for the world to believe that the “one country, two systems” principle still applies in Hong Kong while Beijing is set to impose its own national security legislation on the territory.

Signs are everywhere that the pro-democracy camp is being marginalized.

Protests, such as the one scheduled for today, the 23rd anniversary of the handover, are being banned in the name of social distancing. Leading figures of the democratic movement such as Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and youth activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung would be among the first to be arrested with the passage of the national security law, Apple Daily reported, citing a warning from Chinese dissident Wang Dan.

Meanwhile, prominent pro-democracy figure and former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, 80, has announced that she is withdrawing from civic and political engagement following the recent death of her daughter. But state broadcaster China Central Television, according to Apple Daily, warned in an opinion piece that retirement would not spare her the punishment she deserved.

At the moment, Hong Kong appears to be holding up well financially. June has been a good month as far as the equities market is concerned. The Hang Seng Index stayed mostly above its pre-national security law sell-off level on May 21. The two leading property developers have cleared their newly released residential projects, suggesting strong appetite in the housing market.
Nonetheless, Hong Kong will continue to face uncertainty amid the perception that it is losing its high degree of autonomy as Beijing tightens its grip on the territory.

That’s something that cannot be resolved by just giving a high-priced contract to a PR firm, and a controversial one at that.

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EJ Insight writer