The Hong Kong government has agreed to pay millions of pounds to a discreet London-based PR firm to counter coverage of the territory in the international media.
Consulum, which has also represented Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was on Monday awarded the ￡5 million (US$6.2 million) one-year contract to improve Hong Kong’s reputation — the same day that China passed national security legislation targeting the territory.
The Mayfair-based PR business was founded by Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell, two former employees of Bell Pottinger, an agency that has been criticized for representing some governments and leaders that other businesses would not touch.
The Hong Kong administration said that it needed the support of a PR agency because of reputational damage caused by recent pro-democracy protests.
In its tender document, it wrote that it had failed to “mobilise the community to support law enforcement actions and condemn intimidation, doxxing, vandalism and the criminal and violent behaviour of rioters” during last year’s protests, in which protesters and police clashed regularly.
“Addressing these perceptions to effectively tell the Hong Kong story to targeted global audiences will be critical to support Hong Kong’s economic recovery,” the government said.
The deal cements London’s reputation as a global base for PR companies representing overseas governments, with the contract to improve overseas perceptions of Hong Kong particularly controversial at a time when the UK government is adopting an increasingly aggressive stance toward China.
Many fear the law will be used to curb opposition voices, and see it as Beijing’s boldest move yet to erase the legal firewall between the Chinese Communist Party system and Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties under a “one country, two systems” principle, for at least 50 years after China regained control of it from Britain in 1997.
Britain called the law “deeply troubling” and said it “lies in direct conflict with China’s international obligations,” but added that it needed more time to determine whether Beijing has breached its “one country, two systems” promise.
Twenty-seven countries — including Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan — on Tuesday issued a rare oral rebuke of China at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, describing “deep and growing concerns” over the new law.
They urged China to reconsider, saying the law “undermines” the territory’s freedoms.
Hong Kong initially struggled to convince international PR companies to represent it amid rising anti-government protests late last year, industry outlet Provoke said.
Many agencies felt unable or unwilling to represent an administration that was attracting criticism from around the world, with Beijing increasingly interfering directly in the affairs of the former British colony.
The brief for the government PR contract was rewritten early this year to move the focus away from the political aspect of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s (林鄭月娥) administration and more on the challenge of presenting Hong Kong “as a place to invest, do business, work and live.”
Despite this, many leading PR companies chose not to take part in the bidding process, with some raising concerns about potential ethical conflicts, the concerns of other clients and the high-stakes nature of the contract.
The Hong Kong government has also faced issues convincing local PR professionals to represent it.
A group calling itself the Hong Kong Public Relations and Communications Professional Union objected to the decision to hire a PR company rather than deal with the underlying issues, since “the best crisis management strategy builds upon facts and the ability to accept responsibility.”
Consulum declined to comment on the contract, but it will be required to open a Hong Kong office as part of the move.
Additional reporting by AP and AFP
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