HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government is parting ways with Consulum, PRovoke Media can reveal, one year after hiring the firm for its troubled US$6.3m 'Relaunch Hong Kong' PR campaign, which is yet to launch.

Consulum's one-year contract with Hong Kong's Information Services Department (ISD) expired on 23 June 2021, but an ISD spokesperson told PRovoke Media that the agency had "agreed to work with us until end-July to finalise the advertising collaterals and marketing plans under the current scope of work without additional cost."

The Relaunch Hong Kong campaign itself, however — which aims to restore the city's prized reputation as a global business hub — is not expected to launch until later this year.

"Due to ongoing uncertainty about the global Covid situation, we will take a phased approach to the rollout of our plans," said the ISD spokesperson. "We will use the advertising and messaging to run a business confidence campaign overseas later this year that will pave the way for a 'Relaunch' campaign tentatively next year." 

There has been little visible external activity from the Relaunch Hong Kong campaign, while a daily stream of news continues to impact Hong Kong's global reputation. This was illustrated most recently by the prospect of Google and Facebook quitting the city over changes to domestic privacy laws, amid a broader clampdown following last year's implementation of the National Security Law (NSL).

Regular enquiries to the ISD during the past year have been met with responses reiterating that "the work is underway", but "there are no campaign executions that can be shared at this stage."

However, the ISD spokesperson this time clarified that Consulum had met the various requirements of the $6.3m contract: "The consultants conducted local and international baseline research to better understand perceptions about Hong Kong in key markets and to test messages developed for a publicity campaign. Based on the research findings, a communications strategy, phased plan and messaging, a marketing and advertising plan, and advertising collaterals were developed and delivered as required."

Consulum was hired by the ISD in June 2020, following the Hong Kong government's long and eventful search for a PR agency. An initial attempt during the summer of 2019 collapsed after being rebuffed by eight major agencies amid widespread social unrest in the city.

A second effort to secure public relations support began in early 2020, again finding considerable disinterest from major PR firms — concerned by local staff opposition, the high-stakes nature of the brief and, eventually, the NSL, which came into force at the same time Consulum was selected for the lucrative assignment. 

Best known for its continued work on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, Consulum's hire last June attracted considerable scrutiny. Since landing the brief, the firm has hired several senior executives to staff the business, including former government and police comms advisors Eamonn Fitzpatrick, Rob Shorthouse, Agnes Tsang and Maï-Linh Florentin.

The Relaunch Hong Kong assignment called for Consulum to provide issues and crisis management research, along with a PR campaign that addresses international critics and includes marketing and advertising of the city across North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Target audiences included key influencers, investors, industry leaders, media and think tanks. 

According to the tender document, the $6.3m fee for the one-year contract was to be divided into smaller percentages, each of which was payable upon specific elements of the campaign being completed and accepted by the government. These included strategy development; local and international research; and marketing and advertising. 

An ISD spokesperson declined to comment on how much of the fee has been paid to Consulum. Neither would the spokesperson comment on whether another PR agency would be sought for the brief. The ISD's PR budget remains broadly the same for the 2021/22 fiscal year, at around US$86m, after the global component of spend was hiked by around 50% to US$29m in 2020.

While establishment figures have featured in TV interviews, and the city's Brand Hong Kong campaign continues to run advertorials in major global media, an ISD spokesperson previously told PRovoke Media that these efforts are part of Hong Kong's normal media outreach, rather than being specifically linked to its work with Consulum.

At the 2020 World Economic Forum, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam blamed the city's "obsolete PR machinery" for the massive unrest that gripped the territory since she attempted to pass a controversial extradition treaty in 2019.

Consulum representatives did not respond to request for comment as this story went live.