HONG KONG — Publicis Groupe firm MSL has pulled out of the 'Relaunch Hong Kong' PR tender, PRovoke can reveal, joining a number of global PR firms that have chosen to steer clear of the brief

The decision comes after global PR network MSL supported sister agency Qorvis' bid for the contract, as revealed by PRovoke last week, because of a tender requirement that bidding firms operate a Hong Kong office with at least two staff. 

However, since PRovoke's story last Friday, PR firms taking part in the tender — which include Edelman and Redhill, among the seven bidders — have faced plenty of opposition, particularly on social media, where Hong Kong's protest movement has developed an influential presence. 

While Washington DC firm Qorvis, given its long relationship with the Saudi Arabian government, may be no stranger to this kind of controversy, it is understood that local MSL staff have had second thoughts about the decision to participate. As a result, said MSL Asia CEO Margaret Key, "both agencies will be withdrawing" from the process.

"MSL Asia and Qorvis operate and report as separate agencies within Publicis Groupe," said Key. "In early May, Qorvis was formally invited to participate in this agency review because of experience with similar campaigns and MSL was later asked to support Qorvis given tender requirements that specified a Hong Kong presence."

"Upon further review of MSL’s supporting role with regards to this tender, MSL has declined and withdrawn further participation," confirmed Key. A Qorvis representative did not respond to request for comment as this story went live.

The 'Relaunch Hong Kong' tender, revealed by PRovoke three weeks ago, aims to restore the city's prized reputation as a global business hub, following sustained political unrest over the past year. PRovoke reported last week that numerous major PR firms had declined the opportunity to submit proposals, eight months after they spurned a similar offer to help rebuild the city's tarnished international reputation.

Several agency heads 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.

However, Redhill CEO Jacob Puthenparambil noted that he remains unconcerned. "Everyone has a right to their opinions and we have ours," he said. "Almost every nation does marketing to help in economic revival."

After initially declining to comment last week on the participating firms, an ISD spokesperson confirmed on 17 May that seven bids had been received for the open tender. Only those that meet the criteria will be asked to present their proposals. 

Although numerous major PR firms attended the briefing session three weeks ago, most had declined the opportunity to submit proposals as the deadline expired last week. 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, meanwhile, the crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement has intensified

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.

You can find our full coverage of Hong Kong's public relations and reputation issues here.