The Hong Kong government is on its own to fix a battered reputation after global public relations firms declined to help with rebranding efforts as months of pro-democracy protests have plunged the city into its most serious political crisis ever.
Authorities approached eight international PR firms but four “immediately declined because it would be a detriment to their reputation to support the Hong Kong government now,” the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam told business people in a closed-door speech in late August.
Two more firms later refused a meeting, according to a transcript of her remarks published by Reuters.
In the end, “the quotation exercise lapsed as no bid was received by the close of the quotation period,” a government spokesman said on Tuesday. There is “no immediate plan to conduct a procurement exercise of a similar nature.”
A copy of the government brief seeking PR services underlines that city authorities are aware the political unrest has “raised concerns about Hong Kong’s positioning as a global business and financial hub with a stable environment underpinned by the rule of law".
The goal in procuring public relations services was to “address negative perceptions in key markets overseas to maintain confidence in Hong Kong [and to] underscore the strengths and attributes that differentiate Hong Kong from other cities in the region and bring out the success of ‘one country, two systems," reads the brief obtained by the Holmes Report, a PR trade publication.
Violent, long-running protests have damaged Hong Kong’s reputation as an efficient global financial centre and popular tourist destination.
Activists first took to the streets against a proposal that would allow people facing criminal charges to be extradited to China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts. Demands have since evolved to encompass wider freedoms, including direct leadership elections.
Protesters have disrupted road and rail links, and even blocked passengers from catching flights in efforts to draw global attention to their cause.
Earlier this month, Ms Lam finally conceded to one of five protest demands by formally withdrawing the extradition proposal. The government also began taking out full-page newspaper ads overseas including in the Australian Financial Review and the Wall Street Journal.
“You have read a lot, seen a lot, heard a lot about the events and protests in Hong Kong,” the ads said. “But what you read, see, hear or ‘share’ on social media is just one piece of a complex social, economic and political jigsaw puzzle. It is a puzzle that we will solve on our own. And, it may take time.”
“We remain a safe open, welcoming and cosmopolitan society and an internationally connected, vibrant and dynamic economy,” the ad said. “We will no doubt bounce back. We always do.”
But many activists say Ms Lam’s move was too little, too late.
Indeed, the damage is clear from the numbers – tourist arrivals in August plummeted 40% compared to the same period last year.
The Hong Kong International Airport, normally one of the world’s busiest transport hubs, suffered its biggest monthly drop in passengers in a decade, handling 12 percent fewer in August.
The Hong Kong Tennis Open, originally scheduled for October, was also postponed to an undeclared future date.
PR firm Brunswick declined to comment and Ruder Finn did not respond to queries from the Telegraph. Ogilvy said it was invited to submit a proposal and attended a briefing, but “chose not to proceed after an assessment regarding the availability of our internal resources to meet required timelines.”