SCALING THE WALLS OF CHINA: Has Hong Kong’s return to China opened or closed doors to outside PR companies? Damian Wild looks at the implications of the hand-over for the PR industry

For a country with a public relations industry most generously described as ’fledgling’, China showed the world it already knew how to put on a show. Its commemoration of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland - organised by the business-backed Better Hong Kong Foundation - dwarfed the previous night’s effort by the British and, leaving little change out of HKdollars 100m, was as spectacular as it was costly.

For a country with a public relations industry most generously

described as ’fledgling’, China showed the world it already knew how to

put on a show. Its commemoration of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland

- organised by the business-backed Better Hong Kong Foundation - dwarfed

the previous night’s effort by the British and, leaving little change

out of HKdollars 100m, was as spectacular as it was costly.

The fireworks and laser display at the end of Hong Kong’s first day as a

special administrative region of China was designed to send a clear

message to the world that it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And for

that the local PR industry can claim no small amount of credit. But now

the back-slapping has ceased the industry needs to look at its own


What does the change of sovereignty mean for Hong Kong’s PR


Everything and nothing is the view within the industry. The PR business

in Hong Kong - like the territory itself - has coped with so much change

in recent years that it is almost inevitable the hand-over will prove a

damp squib rather than the tumultuous upheaval that has been widely

portrayed by too many journalists in search of a story.

At least the attention has been good for business. As Edward Naylor,

until last month director of Shandwick in Hong Kong and now head of

corporate affairs at investment bank ING Barings says: ’The eyes of the

world are on Hong Kong and that creates an opportunity in public

relations terms.’

In the 1950s, when Hong Kong first started to make its mark on the West,

the PR community was made up of senior professionals from Australia,

America and the UK. ’It was westerners who started the professional PR

business in Hong Kong,’ says King Cheng, vice-president of the

two-year-old Hong Kong PR Professionals Association. By the 1970s more

local professionals were starting out. As a result, while nowadays most

of the large international firms have a presence in Hong Kong, more

prevalent still are the small and medium sized local PR companies

operating here. But if - as evidence already demonstrates - Hong Kong is

to be the business gateway to a more open China, the way public

relations professionals work will have to be different in future.

The Basic Law agreed by Britain and China guarantees Hong Kong’s way of

life for 50 years and as it guarantees freedom of speech, political

restrictions should not impact on the work of the press or PR


But given the language barriers, the backgrounds of those professionals

- and the pre-eminence of western staff - could be about to change


The upshot of the opening of this new market is that English speaking

people ’are not really hirable’ at the moment, says Karen Chang,

director of Citigate which, like most international PR firms based in

Hong Kong, has been involved in China for some time. ’It’s hard to

justify the salary,’ she explains. ’If you’re senior it’s not a problem

but if you’re just starting out it could be difficult.’

Ludgate Asia’s account director Nick Footitt agrees. ’If I was a

21-year-old leaving university,’ he says, ’I would find it hard to get

into any career in Hong Kong now, but especially PR.’

This cuts both ways, says Chang. Someone who just speaks Mandarin (the

most common mainland dialect) or Cantonese (which is used universally in

Hong Kong) without English is also of as limited use. The ideal is to

get someone who speaks all three, although Chang concedes: ’It’s very

difficult to get someone who is truly tri-lingual.’

The need for multi-tongued PR officers is already apparent, given

changes in the nature of business in Hong Kong. A wave of Chinese ’red

chip’ companies listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange brought a wave

of new PR firms chasing after the business. And this created its own set

of problems.

’The changes started two years ago when more red chip companies came

into Hong Kong,’ says Gavin Anderson, director of financial services

Aubrey Ho. ’The top management don’t speak English. If you don’t speak

Chinese then you have fewer opportunities.’

But others play down the demise of the English-only speaking PR


’There is plenty of room for English-only speakers,’ says Naylor. ’Many

large users of public relations in Hong Kong do so on a regional basis

and therefore English is very important. Multinational brands of course

need to communicate to their local market in Chinese, but there are

regional and strategic requirements in English. Furthermore, there is a

severe shortage of Chinese talent in the industry.’ Not many people can

effectively communicate at ’strategic as well as tactical levels in

Cantonese and English,’ he adds.

In terms of the industry itself, as China has opened up more and more,

Hong Kong-based PR firms - big and small - have established contacts on

the mainland to tap this vast potential market. ’Increasing numbers of

multinational PR agencies are setting up in Hong Kong and in China,’

says Ho. ’The whole industry is moving along with the rest of the

business community and going north into China.’

These contacts take different forms. Gavin Anderson uses the PR division

of Xinhua, the official Chinese state news agency. Burson-Marsteller has

had offices in China for 12 years - it now operates out of Beijing,

Shanghai and across the border in Guangzhou - and was one of the first

firms to break into the mainland. Shandwick originally had an

affiliation with a mainland company but opened a wholly owned operation

in 1994 and now has offices in Beijing and Shanghai. China represents

one of the group’s fastest growing businesses. At the other end of the

scale a small local firm like Forrist Cheung Associates is also

establishing links across the border.

Links between Hong Kong and China will undoubtedly grow in the coming

months and years but the likelihood of a wave of mainland-based public

relations firms moving into Hong Kong in the foreseeable future is


’In China you are looking at a PR function that is still 10 to 20 years

behind Hong Kong,’ says Forrist Cheung. ’You are looking at personal

rather than public relations.’ There are cultural differences too. ’In

China government relations are every important,’ says Cheung.

Naylor agrees. ’There are very few mainland Chinese PR firms as public

relations falls under the media and is therefore controlled by the

Chinese government,’ he says. ’I don’t see what expertise such firms

could offer clients outside of China.’

As a result the Hong Kong PR Professionals Association expects the

reverse to happen, with PR education following business north. ’The PR

profession is a growing profession in China,’ says King Cheng. ’It is

still in its infancy stage. More and more Hong Kong PR firms are going

there to share our skills and experience with them, rather than them

coming here.’


Ted Thomas, a public relations consultant who has lived in Hong Kong for

42 years and is one of the territory’s most vocal advocates, describes

Hong Kong’s PR problem surrounding its return to China as


It is not hard to see why. The glare of the media spotlight has been on

Hong Kong like no other place and event in history and much of the

coverage has been far from kind. The usual suspects have been doing

their best and Hong Kong has been on a PR offensive all year.

Established organisations like the Government Information Service, the

Trade Development Council, the tourist authority and the hoteliers

association have all sought to get the message across that midnight on

June 30 would not - and did not - spell the end of this most successful

of Asian business centres. Newer bodies, such as the Better Hong Kong

Foundation, founded by local businesses two years ago and Advance Hong

Kong, which Mr Thomas set up earlier this year - have also mounted huge

campaigns. Given the largely negative light in which the media has

portrayed the hand-over it would be easy to dismiss these campaigns as

ineffective. But taking into account the weighty baggage of

pre-conceived opinions that many journalists covering the event have

brought to Hong Kong, the coverage could well have been a lot worse.

When he visited the territory earlier this year Shandwick Group chairman

Lord Chadlington hinted at part of the problem. He called on the

organisations responsible for promoting Hong Kong abroad to improve

their coordination in countering the media battering the territory was

taking. ’The media won’t give Hong Kong the benefit of the doubt because

it does not want to give it the benefit of the doubt,’ he said.

The problems of a lack of co-ordination identified by Lord Chadlington

have been compounded by the scale of the press corps. When an

organisation like the Better Hong Kong Association has just one

spokesperson to deal with 8,000 journalists, the chances of ensuring a

positive message is got across are slim. Eddie Naylor, until last month

PR director of Shandwick in Hong Kong, blames the media for

mis-communicating the idea that 30 June spelt the end for the territory.

’Everyone here knows it is not,’ he says ’Communicating the point

appears to be futile as many of the international media have already

made up their minds about Hong Kong’s future. Talk to anyone who

actually does business here and you get a very different picture. At the

end of the day it may be a case of waiting and letting reality do the


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