‘Relaunch HK’ PR contract worth $6.2 million goes to firm linked to controversy, raising eyebrows in industry

01-Jul-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The Hong Kong government’s choice of a public relations firm to help rebuild the city’s shattered international image has raised eyebrows in the industry.

PR experts wondered why the government handed the plum $6.2 million (HK$48 million) deal to Consulum, which is staffed largely by employees of an international firm that collapsed in 2017 after running a racially charged campaign in South Africa.

The immediate effect, they said, was that controversies surrounding the firm would now be associated with the Hong Kong government.

The Information Services Department announced on Monday that the one-year contract for the “Relaunch Hong Kong” campaign had gone to Consulum.

It said Consulum would develop a communications strategy as well as 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”.

The company would conduct research to “shape an issues and crisis management programme” to deal with the information needs and perceptions of Hong Kong’s key global stakeholders, it added.

According to the tender document, the government also wanted a PR consultant to help “counter negative international perceptions”, including “views espoused by critics internationally”.

A number of global PR firms shunned the campaign or withdrew from the tendering process in the wake of last year’s anti-government protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, and more recently, Beijing’s move to introduce a national security law for Hong Kong.

The Consulum website reveals little about the company and does not say who runs it.

But the Financial Times and others have reported that it is managed by Matthew Gunther Bushell and Tim Ryan, former chiefs at Bell Pottinger, which shocked the PR world when it collapsed into administration in 2017 in Britain after running a campaign highlighting the power of white-owned businesses to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid”.

The Guardian has reported that Consulum is staffed largely by former Bell Pottinger employees, and that Consulum has worked on PR programmes with the Saudi Arabian government.

According to records from Hong Kong’s Companies Registry, a company called Consulum HK Limited was incorporated in the city on May 15, with Matthew Gunther Bushell listed as its director. His residential address in the document is for a flat in Bahrain.

According to a 2011 report from The Independent, he was Bell Pottinger’s managing director in Bahrain when the firm represented the Bahrain government, including during a series of protests.

The report said Bell Pottinger issued emails to journalists, including one about the administration’s readiness to receive injured in hospitals, before the regime was found to have detained doctors.

Andy Ho On-tat, who was a senior aide handling PR for the administration of former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, said he was puzzled by the choice of a firm associated with controversy.

“The immediate result is that people will associate those controversies with Hong Kong too, and Hong Kong will be put in the same league as Saudi Arabia,” said Ho.

He also felt that the government had chosen the wrong time to launch a costly PR offensive.

“We don’t need to pay so much for a foreign firm to do studies to know that Hong Kong’s negative image is largely due to political problems,” he said.

“Now we are going to have a national security law and the US has threatened sanctions and China has also threatened to impose visa restrictions on US individuals. How can you persuade people overseas that Hong Kong is a free and welcoming city against this backdrop?”

Agreeing, veteran political PR consultant Peter Lam Yuk-wah said: “The timing of the government campaign is wrong. I am not saying the PR firm will fail to deliver, but its work will be made much more difficult.”

He said the government missed better opportunities to repair Hong Kong’s tarnished image earlier, and the new campaign would be “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.

Political lobbyist Fred Li Wah-ming, a former Hong Kong lawmaker, questioned if a firm known more for its Middle East work could fully understand Hong Kong to work out an effective global campaign to promote the city.

Consulum’s website says it has offices in London, Dubai, Bahrain, Monaco, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong and describes itself as a “specialist government strategic communications consultancy”.

Its Hong Kong address is a shared office on the 19th floor of Two International Finance Centre in Central. The company did not respond to Post queries.

In September last year, at the height of the social unrest, the government admitted it had already spent HK$7.4 million on a global advertising campaign aimed at reassuring foreign investors and visitors that the city was still a safe place.

Earlier this year, the Information Services Department was earmarked HK$226.6 million for managing the city’s foreign public relations for 2020/2021, a 53.5 per cent increase from 2019/2020.



Category: Hong Kong

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