HONG KONG — Edelman has pulled out of the 'Relaunch Hong Kong' PR tender, PRovoke can reveal, pointing to "changes to the global issues environment" in explaining its decision to join the numerous global PR firms that have chosen to steer clear of an increasingly sensitive assignment

The tender, revealed by PRovoke in April, aims to restore the city's prized reputation as a global business hub, following sustained unrest over the past year. However, numerous major PR firms declined the opportunity to take part, after spurning a similar offer to help rebuild the city's tarnished international reputation last year.

Edelman becomes the second global PR firm to withdraw after submitting proposals. Just days after the tender deadline of 15 May, MSL pulled out of the process — in which it was supporting sister firm Qorvis — because of local employee concerns.

Edelman's withdrawal will come as a blow to the Hong Kong Government's Information Services Department (ISD), which is overseeing the tender. As the world's largest PR firm, Edelman's continued presence in the pitch, amid reservations expressed by several rival agency heads, had lent the process valuable credibility.  

It is understood that Edelman made the decision to withdraw two weeks ago and informed staff this week, after Beijing's decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong was followed by US president Donald Trump's threat of sanctions. The escalation of tensions has further undermined the brief's economic development focus, making it difficult for any PR firm to avoid the political realities involved in promoting Hong Kong's business appeal to an international audience.

"Anyone can see, at this stage, that it would be impossible to run that kind of campaign," said an industry source familiar with the situation. "The product has changed."

While some Edelman staffers had opposed the firm's involvement, it is not thought that employee or client pressure were deciding factors in Edelman's decision. PR firms taking part in the tender have faced plenty of opposition, particularly on social media, where Hong Kong's protest movement has developed an influential presence. 

"While Hong Kong’s economy needs support now more than ever, given changes to the global issues environment since we submitted our ideas, we do not believe the campaign we designed can now meet the intended goals," said an Edelman spokesperson. "Nonetheless we have communicated our continued support for the goals of a programme to support the economy, and indeed our hope is that we can work directly with the business community on complementary campaigns."

An ISD spokesperson declined to comment on "individual bidders", and added "the tender is being processed in line with established procedures." While the tender initially received seven bids (including Edelman, MSL and Redhill), the ISD declined to comment on which firms remain in the process. 

Several agency heads previously admitted their unease over the brief to PRovoke, 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.

In addition to Edelman and MSL, PRovoke understands that APCO, BCW, Ogilvy, OPRG (including FleishmanHillard and Ketchum) and Ruder Finn all passed on the opportunity. Other major firms that are not involved include Weber Shandwick, H+K Strategies, Brunswick and Golin. 

While protests in the city have declined amid the Covid-19 pandemic,  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. In recent weeks the crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement has intensified as Beijing tightens its hold over Hong Kong

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.

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