The PRs defending Hong Kong’s National Security Law bring shame on our industry

Himself no angel, being happy to promote cigarettes to women as feminist “torches of freedom”, the self-styled “father of public relations”, Edward Bernays, was appalled that Joseph Goebbels was using his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, to convince the German public that the removal of Jews was necessary for harmonious society. Since then, the ethics of public relations has been taken seriously.

The PRs defending Hong Kong’s National Security Law bring shame on our industry

On 30 June, the Chinese Communist Party passed a National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong – implemented that day and enforced with arrests within hours.

The NSL, introduced without discussion, debate or democratic mandate, severely restricts the topics Hongkongers can discuss.

The maximum penalty for sedition, subversion or collusion is life imprisonment with extradition to mainland China, where torture is commonplace. That the law is publicly supported by the likes of Iran, Myanmar, Syria and Belarus is telling.

The law is deliberately vague, with great uncertainty in advance as to whether it is being broken.

Vagueness means the authorities have a wide latitude in enforcing it and clamping down on dissent, and the law encourages self-censorship of topics related to politics and rights in Hong Kong or China.

The NSL has a pernicious impact upon our industry.

A parliamentary group in Westminster, the European Parliament, or Edinburgh, might want to publish a report highlighting China’s egregious human rights record.

The tasks of research, launch and promotion might legitimately be undertaken by an agency with its costs being met by a human rights NGO.

Members of that NGO in Hong Kong face arrest and incarceration for life. So do the staff of the agency involved, wherever in the world they may be, along with the British parliamentarians who published the report.

This is corruption of democracy and undermining of free speech that are essential for ethical communications.

The suspension of Britain’s extradition arrangements with Hong Kong was the inevitable response to the NSL, but many PR professionals still risk never being able to visit Hong Kong, China or countries that retain extradition arrangements with them.

The list of victims of this new law is already growing and includes high-profile legislators, pro-democracy and human rights campaigners, and publishers.

Shockingly, some major household names in the UK have voiced their support, including HSBC and Standard Chartered.

Some PR companies are taking the oppressor’s shilling to defend it – shaming the industry.

History is full of the monsters who use words to justify torture: Goebbels, Bukharin, Quisling.

We mustn’t add to this list.

Beyond the threats to colleagues in Hong Kong, those who defend the NSL drag the name of public relations through the mud and risk further restrictions on the work the profession does.

We should call out those bringing us into disrepute.

Since Edward Bernays, it has been acknowledged that the work we do changes hearts and minds; ethics should always be central to this.

To ignore the responsibility ethically to exercise that power to influence is to doom comms professionals to repeat the shameful mistakes of the past.

Chris Whitehouse is chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, advisors to Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong


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