Last year, the government of the Hong Kong SAR struggled to find a PR agency to repair its image amid lengthened pro-democracy protests that invited international scrutiny. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam reportedly said that she had approached eight global agencies, four of which "immediately declined" to represent the government. The rest eventually turned down the job.
Two weeks ago, the government relaunched its hunt for an agency, and called for an open bid. According to a tender released by the administration, requirements for an agency partner include "one physical office in Hong Kong", with a minimum of "two full-time PR professionals" who have at least one year's experience in the communications field, and also an office in North America or Europe. SCMP reported this as a "relatively low threshold".
PRWeek reported that the government will spend HK$226.6 million (US$29 million) for the project. The government's annual budget—announced in February—indicated that PR efforts outside of Hong Kong will grow by 53.5%, and this increased spend will be used to promote a "favourable image" of the city internationally and on the mainland. The brief includes a one-year global campaign to accentuate the SAR's status as a regional business, financial and cultural hub.
Today, the recently-founded employee union, Hong Kong Public Relations and Communications Professional Union (HKPRU), released a statement calling out the 'Relaunch Hong Kong' campaign as "political spin". An excerpt of the statement reads:
"The HKPRU is of the view that the government has never genuinely looked at the crux of the matter as it continues to indulge itself in its world of make-believe that 'everyone misunderstands the Hong Kong government'. The view that Hong Kong's deep-rooted, longstanding socio-political crisis could be defused and resolved by the means of public relations is evidently impractical and naive."
The body went on to say that the government's perception of the pandemic is seen as an opportunity to "turn the tide" of negative international perceptions, and to revitalise Hong Kong's business environment without having to respond to and deal with the socio-political crisis. In essence, it is critiquing the government for sweeping the "real issue" under the rug, while looking to PR as a means to fix a deep-rooted and still-simmering issue within Hong Kong's societal and political fabric.
The statement continues:
"Hong Kong's international standing and image, as well as the city's effectiveness in containing the spread of the coronavirus are fruits of the collective efforts of all Hongkongers. Hong Kong's political and social stability underpins the investment and business environment.
The government's routine attitude to neglect popular opinions and to shift blame away from itself has been a constant throughout the Anti-ELAB Movement and the pandemic, and such practice is prima facie detrimental to the building of its positive image. The best crisis management strategy builds upon facts and the ability to accept responsibility, which is also necessary conditions to cultivate trust and a sincere and honest rapport with various stakeholders, and this in turn paves the new way forward for Hong Kong.
Regrettably, the government never intended to nurture such conditions and rather opted for public relations ploys that could never help repair Hong Kong's international image."
As the government's brief is expected to begin execution by the start of July this year, HKPRU reminds readers of the various protest-related anniversaries from June onwards.
A spokesperson for HKPRU told Campaign Asia-Pacific that political spin would not revive Hong Kong, but that meeting the five demands of the protest movement would.
"The HKPRU strongly advises our fellow PR professionals to carefully consider whether to partner up with Hong Kong government," the spokesperson said.
HKPRU is a new organisation founded in January 2020 and is an employee union representing members of the PR and comms sector. It claims it currently has more than 100 members from public, private and non-governmental entities and consultancies. Campaign Asia-Pacific has reached out to HKPRU for more information on the union and its members.
PRHK, arguably Hong Kong's biggest PR association, has so far not made an official statement about the handling of comms around the protests, nor the government's struggle to find an agency partner.
A version of this article first appeared in Campaign Asia-Pacific.
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