HONG KONG — A new organization claiming to represent employees from more than 30 of the city's PR firms has warned agencies that they face "heightened challenges" from political tensions should they attempt to take part in the government's latest tender to rebuild its battered international reputation.

The statement from the Hong Kong Public Relations and Communication Professional Union (HKPRU) comes almost two weeks after PRovoke revealed that Hong Kong's Information Services Department (ISD) is calling for PR agency support to help restore Hong Kong's prized reputation as a global business and tourism hub.

The one-year assignment follows last year's failed attempt to find a PR firm that would help address "negative perceptions" of a city that has been gripped by unrest for 10 months, alongside the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A HKPRU spokesperson told PRovoke that the organization was formed in January of this year, and now counts more than 100 members "employed in PR and communications roles in almost 100 public, private and non-governmental entities, including over 30 agencies."

The HKPRU claims to be Hong Kong’s first employee union representing members of the public relations and communications sector, but did not respond to further requests for information from PRovoke as to the organization's leadership and committee members. 

The concerns of local PR agency employees helped to scupper the ISD's last attempt to find global PR agency representation, along with reservations about the brief's credibility, and the impact on the reputation of participating firms.

This time, though, PRovoke understands that agencies are more amenable to the brief, which calls for proposals to be submitted by this Friday. The new tender is an open one, compared to last year's invite-only affair, and features a lower threshold for participating firms. In addition, the ISD is aiming 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.

That has meant an increase in interest from firms based outside Hong Kong, who are hoping to partner with local players to meet the brief's bidding criteria. However, despite adverse economic conditions, PRovoke understands that most of the city's major global PR firms are unlikely to take part in the process.

In particular, the HKPRU points out that there will be several protest-related anniversaries from June onwards, with unrest set to escalate in the run-up to September's Legislative Council elections. "It is believed that with the government’s routine approach in problem-solving, the deep-rooted socio-political crisis would not be resolved in the near future," said the spokesperson.

"As such, there will be heightened challenges for the contracting public relations firm of the campaign to rebuild the government’s international image with political tensions both at home and overseas. The HKPRU thus invites our fellow professionals to carefully consider such information to reach an informed and wise decision on such matters."

Recent events in Hong Kong include a crackdown on pro-democracy figureheads, while hundreds of protesters were arrested last weekend. 

"The government continues to harbour police brutalities, turn a deaf ear to the populace’s demands, and even to level up its suppression on dissent," said the HKPRU spokesperson. "The renewed invitation of bids also illustrates the government’s perception of the pandemic as an opportunity to turn the tide in terms of its negative international perceptions, and to revitalise Hong Kong’s business environment without having to respond to and deal with the socio-political crisis."

In addition to issues and crisis management research, the new PR campaign aims to roll out by early July, addressing international critics and including marketing and advertising across North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Target audiences include key influencers, investors, industry leaders, media and think tanks, across 

In particular the brief notes that "throughout the social unrest in 2019 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. This had a negative impact on global perceptions about Hong Kong."

However, the HKPRU hit back against that claim, blaming the Hong Kong government's "communications tactics to confound right and wrong and to hide the truth with lies".

"The best crisis management strategy builds upon facts and the ability to accept responsibility, which is also necessary conditions to cultivate trust and a sincere and honest rapport with various stakeholders, and this in turn paves the new way forward for Hong Kong," said the spokesperson. "Regrettably, the Government never intended to nurture such conditions and rather opted for public relations ploys that could never help repair Hong Kong’s international image."

Accordingly, the HKPRU is calling on the government to meet the protest movement's 'five demands', rather than "wasting taxpayers’ money on futile efforts."

"The HKPRU is of the view that the government has never genuinely looked at the crux of the matter as it continues to indulge itself in its world of make-believe that 'everyone misunderstands the Hong Kong government'. The view that Hong Kong’s deep-rooted, longstanding socio-political crisis could be defused and resolved by the means of public relations is evidently impractical and naïve. 

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 the government’s inability to tackle Hong Kong's deep-rooted problems.

Earlier in the year, at the World Economic Forum, 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. Lam also claimed that "world-class propaganda" is responsible for her inability to win over Hong Kong residents and push her approval rating out of the single-digits.