Hong Kong protests: government fails to find PR firm to rescue battered image.

The Hong Kong government has tried but failed to secure help from any of the global public relations firms it has approached to salvage the financial hub’s tarnished reputation, as anti-government protests continued to wreak havoc months into its deepest political crisis in decades.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam told a group of business people in the city in late August that the government had approached eight global PR companies to help it relaunch Hong Kong, but four “immediately declined because that would be a detriment to their reputation to support the Hong Kong government now,” according to a transcript of her speech published by Reuters last week. Two more declined later, she said.

Now, it appears that all have turned down the government’s invitation of bids. In a response to the Guardian’s enquiry, the Hong Kong government’s information services department said: “The quotation exercise lapsed as no bid was received by the close of the quotation period.”

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The government said it “has no immediate plan to conduct a procurement exercise of a similar nature.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Lam confirmed the government had approached PR companies but had been advised that “the time is not right” to rebuild the image of Hong Kong. “But Hong Kong’s fundamentals remain very strong ... the time will come for us to launch a major campaign to restore some of the damage done to Hong Kong’s reputation.”

She also said she disagreed with credit rating agency Moody’s downgrade of its outlook on Hong Kong from stable to negative this week but said “violent acts” in the ongoing protests would “inevitably undermine and affect the international perception of Hong Kong’s business environment”.

According to a copy of the government brief carried by the Holmes Report, a PR trade publication, the government was aware that the ongoing protests have raised concerns over Hong Kong’s reputation “as a global business and financial hub with a stable environment underpinned by the rule of law” and the safety for business travellers and tourists.

The document said the government was seeking advice 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.” It also wanted advice on how to “bring out the success of ‘one country, two systems’” policy - under which Hong Kong has been ruled under China after its handover of sovereignty from Britain in 1997.

The document called for “an initial assessment of Hong Kong’s image overseas” following the wave of protests that started in June, along with a proposed PR strategy to cope with the crisis. The campaign sought to target “business persons, investors, entrepreneurs, politicians and high-income leisure and business travellers” from Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America. The submission period ended in late August.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Out of the three international PR firms contacted by the Guardian that reportedly turned down the government, Ogilvy said in an email it had decided not to proceed “after an assessment regarding the availability of our internal resources to meet required timelines as stated in the RFP (Request for Proposal)”. Another firm declined to comment.

Public relations experts told the Guardian they were not surprised that the government was turned down because it is widely reviled by large numbers of Hong Kong citizens for its response to the protests.

The wave of demonstrations over a controversial extradition bill started in June but have since morphed into a broader anti-government campaign seeking democratic reforms. Lam belatedly withdraw the suspended bill two weeks ago, but that failed to stop the protests as resentment against police brutality in the past three months grew and many lambasted the withdrawal as too little, too late.

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PR campaigns are no use unless concrete actions are taken by the government to address public demands, said Andy Ho, a veteran public relations consultant and a PR adviser to the chief executive from 2006 to 2012.

Against such a background, Ho said a recent Hong Kong government advertisement placed in international newspapers in early September was ineffective. The advertisement said: “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.”

“But here we are, in the 15th week [of protests], we can’t see much of an ability to solve [the puzzle],” said Ho. “You watch TV and see riot police, tear gas, metro stations closing, airport lockdown … This is having a completely opposite effect.”

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