HONG KONG — Most of the world's biggest PR firms have chosen to steer clear of the Hong Kong government's latest search for PR support, PRovoke Media can reveal, eight months after they spurned a similar offer to help rebuild the city's tarnished international reputation.

Although numerous major PR firms attended the briefing session two weeks ago, PRovoke Media understands that most had declined the opportunity to submit proposals as the deadline expired today (Friday, 15 May). The 'Relaunch Hong Kong' tender, revealed by PRovoke Media, aims to restore the city's prized reputation as a global business hub, following sustained political unrest over the past year.

According to documents seen by PRovoke Media, the virtual briefing session run by the government's Information Services Department (ISD) drew attendance from PR firms based inside and outside Hong Kong. These included APCO Worldwide, CT Group, Edelman, Omnicom PR Group (OPRG), Publicis firms Qorvis/MSL, Ruder Finn and WPP's BCW and Ogilvy. 

Of that group, Edelman confirmed that it will take part in the tender. "This brief is to support the Hong Kong economy overseas and that is an issue that impacts all of us, that’s why we are happy to be participating in this important pitch," said a spokesperson for the world's largest PR firm.

PRovoke Media also understands that MSL has bid for the one-year assignment in conjunction with sister firm Qorvis, the Washington DC public affairs firm that is perhaps best known for its relationship with the Saudi Arabian government. An MSL representative declined to comment.

In addition, Singapore-headquartered PR consultancy Redhill, one of the world's fastest-growing firms, confirmed that it would take part in the tender. 

While many of the remaining firms either declined to comment or did not respond to request for comment, PRovoke Media understands that APCO, BCW, Ogilvy, OPRG (including FleishmanHillard and Ketchum) and Ruder Finn all passed on the opportunity.

After initially declining to comment on the participating firms when this story was first posted on 15 May, an ISD spokesperson confirmed on 17 May that seven bids had been received for the open tender. But only those that meet the criteria — which includes operating a Hong Kong office with at least two staffers, alongside an office in either North America or Europe — will be asked to present their proposals. "We are encouraged by the interest in this tender," said the spokesperson.

A number of overseas-based firms are believed to have shown interest, but it remains unclear whether overseas PR agencies can partner with local firms to meet the brief's requirements.

One firm that does meet the tender requirements is Sir Lynton Crosby's CT Group, which launched a Hong Kong office in 2019. Crosby, the architect of numerous election successes for Australia's Liberal Party and the UK's Conservative Party, last year said that the Hong Kong government needed to deal with the causes of the protest, rather than viewing it as a PR issue. Representatives from the firm did not respond to request for comment as this story went live.

However, several agency heads admitted their unease over the brief to PRovoke Media, with a senior executive at one of the world's largest PR firms describing the Hong Kong government as "a very controversial client". The comments mirror the reservations expressed after last year's fruitless search for global PR support, which included the assignment's credibility, local employee concerns, and the impact on the reputation of participating firms.

This time around, it is understood that the ISD has 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 is an open one, compared to last year's invite-only affair, and features a far lower threshold for participating firms.

Regardless, 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."

This kind of wording, noted an agency head, "could be interpreted as giving the government a plan for increasing the crackdown."

Another told PRovoke Media that not enough had changed since last time, with local agency staff continuing to harbour reservations about working for the government. Earlier this week, 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. 

"No matter what you say, the environment is not necessarily right for the message," said the agency head. "In some ways, we all want to be able to do this job, because we want Hong Kong to do better. "

In addition, noted this agency head, geopolitical concerns have only become more pronounced with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. "There's going to be more anti-China sentiment than ever before," said the agency head. "The brief looks straightforward, until you have the filters of living here [in Hong Kong]."

Not all agencies blamed political concerns for their refusal to bid. More than one pointed to workload commitments. And it also seems clear that agencies are more amenable to the Hong Kong government's latest effort to seek PR support, perhaps due to the tough economic environment in a city that remains mired in recession

"The tender requires a campaign focused on international business audiences, giving Hong Kong’s business community a much needed voice overseas to support the economy," said one agency head. "I don’t think anyone will accept this brief if it's about arguing against the protests. This brief doesn’t aim to ignore the challenges facing Hong Kong, rather to provide some counter-balance for the benefit of Hong Kong’s economy, businesses and workers."

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.

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.

"As one of the world's most open and inter-connected economies, this initiative will help lay the groundwork to reconnect with global audiences and reopen for business and visitors after the fight against COVID-19 subsides," said the ISD spokesperson. "We aim to inform target global audiences of 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'."

This story was updated on 17 May to include the ISD confirmation that seven bids had been received for the tender.