HONG KONG — Senior executives have exited Consulum as the consultancy scales back its Hong Kong presence following the end of its controversial government PR assignment, PRovoke Media can reveal. 

Rob Shorthouse, who joined Consulum Hong Kong as partner one year ago to oversee the assignment, is understood to be the most senior figure to leave the firm, which remains best known for its work in Saudi Arabia.

Shorthouse, a former communications head for Strathclyde Police, was one of a number of hires that Consulum made to staff up its Hong Kong office after it won the SAR government's $6m 'Relaunch Hong Kong' assignment. 

That assignment ended in July, when Hong Kong's Information Services Department chose not to renew the lucrative 12-month contract. Since then, pro-establishment lawmakers have questioned the value of the campaign, which remains in limbo, claiming that the HK$44.3m ($5.7m) budget represents a waste of public money.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Consulum will retain a "skeleton staff" in Hong Kong, including partner Eamonn Fitzpatrick, another government and police comms veteran who joined the firm 12 months ago. 

Agnes Tsang, who joined Consulum as a director last year, has departed to become head of external affairs at Rosewood Hotel Group. Associate director Maï-Linh Florentin is also no longer with the firm.

“We don’t discuss matters relating to our staff," said Fitzpatrick via email. "We continue to operate in and from Hong Kong."

Consulum established its Hong Kong office on 15 May 2020, the last possible date to establish a presence in the city according to the 'Relaunch Hong Kong' tender criteria. The business director is Matthew Gunther Bushell, the ex-Bell Pottinger veteran who co-founded Consulum with Tim Ryan in 2012, and the firm's website still lists a serviced office in one of Hong Kong's most expensive commercial buildings. 

In Hong Kong's Legislative Council last month, Undersecretary for Home Affairs Jack Chan Jick-chi was forced to defend Consulum's hire, when lawmakers asked why a local Hong Kong company had not been selected for the Relaunch brief.

"Of the seven bids, other than one local limited company, the other six had offices in Hong Kong — therefore we can't tell whether they are Hong Kong or foreign companies," said Chan, while fending off criticism of the project's messaging and budget. 

Consulum has faced considerable scrutiny for its work in Saudi Arabia and its selection in Hong Kong. The low-profile firm has defended its reputation, earlier telling PRovoke Media: "We operate at the pinnacle of our industry and with the highest standards and integrity, which is the very basis upon which Consulum was founded."

The firm is thought to employ more than 85 staffers across London, Dubai and Bahrain, generating billings in excess of £25m. It is further understood that senior Consulum executive Ryan Coetzee played a leading role in terms of landing the Hong Kong assignment.  

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. PRovoke Media revealed, for example, that two high-profile PR consultancies — including Edelman, the world's biggest public relations agency — chose to pull out of the tender after initially submitting proposals, while most others declined to participate. Concerns included local staff opposition, the high-stakes nature of the brief and, eventually, the National Security Law, which came into force at the same time Consulum was selected for the lucrative assignment.