HONG KONG — The city's PR industry has questioned whether a significant increase in Hong Kong's global PR budget will help restore the city's international reputation, which has been battered by months of sustained political and economic unrest.

The concerns mirror the reservations expressed by PR agencies last year, when PRovoke Media revealed that eight PR firms had turned down an ISD brief to work for the Hong Kong government. 

The hike in global PR spend was revealed in Hong Kong's 2020 budget, which earmarked HK$226.6m (US$29m) for the city's Information Services Department (ISD), representing an increase of 53.5% over its 2019 budget for international PR campaigns, which seek to "promote a favourable image of Hong Kong internationally and in the Mainland."

The money is to be used to "counter negative perceptions in key markets and rebuild international confidence in Hong Kong as Asia’s global business and financial hub with a safe and stable environment underpinned by the rule of law," according to the ISD budget.

"The social unrest in Hong Kong since June 2019 has attracted widespread international attention and affected the external image of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). This 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 increased spending comes after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam blamed the city's "obsolete PR machinery" for the massive unrest that has gripped the territory since she attempted to pass a controversial extradition treaty. 

In addition to last year's failed ISD brief, PRovoke Media more recently reported that a US PR firm has been sought to help "inspire and enhance confidence" in the beleaguered city's prized reputation as a global business hub, which has also been severely dented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“One area where the Hong Kong government would be well advised to spend money is targeting the global business community," said Charles Lankester, EVP of risk management at Ruder Finn. "When the business world emerges from Covid-19, CEOs, boards and management will think about business plans for 2021. What they read, see and hear about Hong Kong will be vital. They will also start going back to the global forums business people typically attend. When they do, there needs to be a single, simple, compelling message that every attendee sees and hears about Hong Kong."

As with last year's brief, though, several of the city's senior PR industry executives — speaking on condition of anonymity — questioned whether more global PR campaigns would only serve to paper over the cracks caused the government’s inability to tackle the city's deep-rooted problems.

As one agency leader put it, the attempt to repair Hong Kong’s reputation with a 53% international PR budget increase is "like trying to cure Covid-19 with a paracetamol."

"The communications around an organisation’s – or a city’s – reputation cannot be divorced from its actions," added another industry source. "The coronavirus pandemic is obscuring much of this for the moment, but democratically elected councillors are being harassed and arrested; whenever and wherever people gather to express their views on the city’s governance, the police response is frequently excessively violent and accompanied by mass arbitrary arrests.  Meaningless platitudes from the government about rule of law are unconvincing when set against this reality. And any PR campaign with this as the backdrop will fall similarly short."

Lam has also blamed "world-class propaganda" for her inability to win over Hong Kong residents and push her approval rating out of the single-digits. Speaking to Apple Daily though, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong questioned the government's PR spend, describing its efforts as "Internet Explorer" when compared to the international network he uses to lobby support, which he likened to "Google Chrome". 

“I have 514,429 followers on Twitter, while Brand Hong Kong only has 4,500," said Wong. "I don’t really know where they have spent their money,"

Wong, like many others, points to the need for practical measures instead of overseas PR. "Without proper reflection and attention to the relevant substantive issues, there is danger that the world will not be ready for the message they have to tell and their constituents will not be motivated to make it happen," added another PR industry source. "Their message could fall flat at best or be interpreted as tone deaf by the very people they are wishing to impress."

The ISD budget explains that the spending is required to promote "Hong Kong as Asia’s world city" and to reinforce the city's positioning "as a major business, financial, and cultural hub."

But another agency CEO said that the increased PR spend "looks ill-timed and fails on five critical points. Facts, relevance, timing, messaging and trust." 

"First, any facts right now, are conjecture," said the agency head. "Second, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and HK's position as a bastion of free enterprise is irrelevant to this. Third is timing, the global free market, as we understand it, will change over the coming weeks and months.  Fourth is messaging, the Government’s intention to 'fight back' on the international stage, rather than promoting how unique and wonderful Hong Kong is shows a tin ear. And lastly is trust. We are in a global pandemic and domestic trust isn't there, so no message will ever penetrate as it's impossible for a single body to compete with the mass of public opinion."

"The last brief was essentially domestic and you can’t fix the domestic situation with PR, only policy," added the CEO of another international PR firm. "Action not words are needed. This shows they are focusing a separate effort on global reputation management which is both sensible and good for HK people and businesses. It’s a step in the right direction. Of course the domestic challenges will still need addressing for this to work well though."

With the Hong Kong authorities also facing criticism for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, it seems clear that those domestic challenges require considerable attention. The budget also includes more modest increases for local PR activities (+8.9% to HK$278.2m) and public opinion monitoring (+16.8% to HK$32.6m).

All of that money, an agency head warns, will come to naught unless Hong Kong's government "earns its right to engage, by its actions during this crisis."

"If it can achieve that then it can start to build a PR programme that promotes the city's enduring strengths, and even then, this must be based on a foundation where they have fully listened to community groups and have developed a meaningful roadmap of actions that can assuage fundamental concerns. If it can build trust with Hong Kongers, then the Hong Kong people will be the most powerful advocacy group that the city could ever achieve. But it is being judged on its actions, not words."