HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government has awarded its lucrative US$6m 'Relaunch Hong Kong' PR tender to Consulum, following a high-profile tender process that saw numerous global PR firms steer clear of an increasingly sensitive assignment

Launched in 2013 by two veterans of Bell Pottinger, Consulum is best known for its Middle Eastern work, which includes supporting Saudi Arabia — a controversial remit that has attracted heightened scrutiny following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The firm lands the one-year contract, worth US$6,289,215, after PRovoke Media revealed that two global PR firms — Edelman and Qorvis/MSL — had pulled out of the tender, which aims to restore the city's prized reputation as a global business hub, following sustained unrest over the past year. In addition to Edelman and Qorvis/MSL, numerous major PR firms declined the opportunity to take part, after spurning a similar offer to help rebuild the city's tarnished international reputation last year.

According to a statement from Hong Kong's Information Services Department (ISD), Consulum will develop a communications strategy and 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 assignment is described as "issues and crisis management" by the ISD, to "address the information needs and current perceptions of Hong Kong's key global stakeholders."

"We believe this initiative can help Hong Kong reconnect with global audiences as we gradually reopen for business and visitors after the worldwide fight against Covid-19 subsides," said ISD deputy director Brett Free.

"This programme will help us to inform global audiences about Hong Kong's economic recovery and responses to issues of international interest, including the facts surrounding Hong Kong's efforts to address the Covid-19 crisis, and that Hong Kong remains always welcoming and open for business."

In addition to offices in Bahrain, Dubai and Riyadh, Consulum also operates offices in London and Monaco. According to the Companies Registry, the firm's Hong Kong office was established on 15 May of this year, two weeks after the global PR tender was revealed by PRovoke Media, and the exact submission deadline by which bidding firms were required to operate an office in the city. The ISD tender further stipulates the Hong Kong operation must employ at least two staffers, alongside an office in either North America or Europe.

Consulum has kept a fairly low profile since being founded in 2013 by Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell, former senior executives of Bell Pottinger in London and the Middle East. Bell Pottinger was wound down in 2017, with its Middle Eastern operations ultimately acquired by Hanover. 

The ISD again noted that the tender had received seven bids, without disclosing how many met the relevant criteria. In addition to Edelman, MSL/Qorvis and Consulum, Singapore-based firm Redhill also took part. However, numerous firms ultimately declined the opportunity, citing geopolitical concerns, local employee opposition and reservations about the brief's credibility and impact on their reputation.

Edelman, for example, made the decision to withdraw four weeks ago, after Beijing's decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong was followed by US president Donald Trump's threat of sanctions. The escalation of tensions has further undermined the brief's economic development focus, making it difficult for any PR firm to avoid the political realities involved in promoting Hong Kong's business appeal to an international audience.

Edelman's decision to pull out mirrors the reservations expressed after last year's fruitless search for global PR support. This time around, the ISD sought to frame the brief as a purely economic effort, distancing it from chief executive Carrie Lam's office and underlining that political consultancy is not required. In addition, the new tender was an open one, compared to last year's invite-only affair, and featured a far lower threshold for participating firms.

In addition to Edelman and MSL, PRovoke Media understands that APCO, BCW, Ogilvy, OPRG (including FleishmanHillard and Ketchum) and Ruder Finn all passed on the opportunity. Other major firms that were not involved include Weber Shandwick, H+K Strategies, Brunswick and Golin. 

More than one agency leader pointed to language in the brief that directly linked the city's overseas communications strategy to social disturbances in the city. For example, the tender document notes that "there were views that the HKSAR Government did not effectively present its case to defend its actions or effectively mobilise the community to support law enforcement actions and condemn intimidation, doxxing, vandalism and the criminal and violent behaviour of rioters."

While protests in the city have declined amid the Covid-19 pandemic,  a PR employee union cautioned agencies about supporting the government's "political spin", as tensions in the city rise amid one-year protest anniversaries and the run-up to September's Legislative Council elections. In recent weeks the crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement has intensified as Beijing tightens its hold over Hong Kong

The agency search comes after the government significantly increased global PR spend in its 2020 budget, earmarking HK$226.6m (US$29m) for the ISD — an increase of 53.5% over its 2019 budget for international PR campaigns. However, the city's PR leaders previously questioned the budget hike, wondering whether more global campaigns would only serve to paper over the cracks caused by the government’s inability to tackle Hong Kong's deep-rooted problems.

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