By the time Edelman pulled out of the Hong Kong government’s protracted search for a public relations partner, what was once an idle joke had become painful reality. Hong Kong needed a PR agency far more than a PR firm needed Hong Kong.

In the usual calculus of agency supply and demand, that kind of scenario is rare. Clients, especially those brandishing seven-figure project fees, typically have their pick of the PR litter. Tough economic conditions, following protests and a pandemic, would presumably make PR firms only more eager to talk themselves into a brief, despite the controversial baggage it might carry.

But Edelman’s dramatic withdrawal, following a similar decision by MSL, effectively put paid to that notion. After last year’s PR search embarrassingly collapsed, scuppered by the disinterest of eight major agencies, the continued presence of the world’s largest PR firm had given the new ‘Relaunch Hong Kong’ tender a veneer of credibility.

All of that was soon washed away. Edelman joined the ranks of the many major agencies, including the likes of APCO, BCW, H+K Strategies, FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy, Portland and Weber Shandwick, that had chosen to rebuff the Hong Kong government’s latest search for someone to repair its beleaguered global reputation.

The reasons, as ever, were not hard to fathom — local employee opposition along with serious misgivings about the brief's credibility and high-stakes potential to draw an agency into a morass of negative headlines. If that mix wasn’t noxious enough, another factor would soon serve to decisively underscore the yawning divide between government rhetoric and urban reality.

Few Hongkongers will forget where they were when news of Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law (NSL) started leaking out on the evening of 21 May. With the city emerging from its semi-lockdown, that Thursday night also happened to be in between two days of agency presentations for the ‘Relaunch Hong Kong’ tender, after the submission deadline had passed two weeks earlier. Perhaps stung by the rejection of so many firms, the ISD claimed it had received seven bids, but it remains unclear how many of those actually met the relevant tender criteria, even if they had been significantly relaxed since last year’s failed search.

Edelman had made its pitch to Hong Kong’s Information Services Department (ISD) earlier on the same day. But the NSL, followed as it was by US president Donald Trump's threat of sanctions, may well have appeared as a useful escape clause for the agency, by now out on a limb as the only multinational network still willing to consider working for the Hong Kong government on a project of this nature, while battling local headlines of staff opposition.

Within a week, Edelman had pulled out, citing a fundamental change in the "global issues environment.” Hong Kong’s ISD, no doubt conscious of the high-profile nature of last year's aborted PR tender, appeared to be running out of options, tersely telling this publication that it would not comment on individual bidders.

So it was that on 29 June, the Hong Kong government announced it had awarded the $6.3m tender to Consulum, a firm best known for its willingness to stand by Saudi Arabia after the killing and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khasoggi. The headlines, unsurprisingly, were unforgiving. If Hong Kong really wanted to build a more positive narrative, hiring a firm that carried this kind of baggage of its own seemed like an odd way of going about it.  

The rise of Consulum

The global PR market is a variegated place, bereft of barriers to entry and subsisting largely on a long tail of small and medium sized client assignments. These conditions can sometimes conspire to make generalisations difficult — publicly-held behemoths, for example, may rub shoulders with one-person shops on the same assignment. Aside from the areas of lobbying and public affairs, any regulation is typically self-mandated and inconsistently enforced, at best.

One traditional method of delineating firms, though, might be to determine whether or not they are willing to talk about their client base. This is not a failsafe test; there are many agencies more willing to discuss some of their clients rather than others. For the most part, though, it holds true — there are PR firms that will reveal their assignments and those that won’t.

Consulum falls squarely into the latter camp, which has shrunk noticeably over the past two decades. Agencies are subject to far more scrutiny these days, and are correspondingly aware of adverse consequences. Citizens and civil society groups are empowered. News travels fast. Clients are far less likely to give their agencies the benefit of the doubt. And employees want to work for companies that reflect the values they hold.

"It's my personal opinion, but if you start from the premise that everyone deserves counsel in the court of public opinion, then it stands to reason that you should disclose your work," says David Gallagher, who chairs the global ethics council at the UK's PRCA, the trade association that spurred the demise of Bell Pottinger by expelling the firm from its ranks. "If you’re not comfortable disclosing your clients then it suggests they have something to hide."

In today’s highly networked world, furthermore, it is not hard to see why transparency has emerged as an important value for the public relations profession. Consumers and others have more information about a client and its agencies than ever before. They are in (or believe they are in) a position to judge the authenticity of any message you send them — and they are in a mood to punish any perceived inauthenticity swiftly and severely. Working behind-the-scenes, by extension, only adds to the suggestion of impropriety.

The best example of this remains Bell Pottinger, a legendary firm that made its name at the murkier end of the geopolitical spectrum, unapologetically representing controversial regimes in such countries as Belarus, Bahrain and Sri Lanka. After an ill-fated attempt to incite racial hatred in South Africa, Bell Pottinger was deserted by clients, collapsing ignominiously in 2017.

By then, Consulum was already purring along in some style, formed in 2012 by two Bell Pottinger veterans — Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell. Then, as now, the focus was squarely on the Middle East — servicing a client base that was largely focused on government entities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

If anything, though, Consulum turned out to inhabit an even more nebulous sphere than Bell Pottinger, which at least had a bevy of corporate clients it could point to. The phrase 'low-profile’ does not quite do Hong Kong’s new PR firm justice — in speaking to sources familiar with the company, a familiar refrain emerges. Consulum is secretive to a fault, complete with an opaque website and a near-total absence of meaningful information about its operations.

In the course of reporting this article, numerous questions to Consulum went unanswered, but some clues exist. There are 46 Consulum staffers on LinkedIn, most drawn from the ranks of political communications — former UK government officials or of firms like Tony Blair Associates and, of course, Bell Pottinger. There are company filings — which point to addresses in the Cayman Islands, Bahrain and Dubai, and also reveal that Consulum’s Hong Kong office was established on 15 May, the exact date by which it needed to be in operation.

The tender further stipulated that Consulum’s Hong Kong office must employ two full-time professionals, but ascertaining these details is considerably harder. PRovoke understands that the office exceeds this criteria, but only Gunther Bushell is listed as a director of the Hong Kong company, along with his Bahrain address.

On the Internet, staggeringly, there is not a single example of a Consulum employee making a public comment, other than the statement provided by an agency spokesman to Provoke this week: "Consulum is proud of the work that we do for our clients, developing programmes that help countries and governments improve delivery, build capacity, promote economic outcomes and manage change. 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."
 
Nevertheless, PRovoke understands that the vast majority of Consulum’s work remains with Saudi Arabia — as detailed in various news accounts that emerged following Khasoggi’s murder — spanning economic positioning, tourism and culture. There is also a significant assignment for the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. 

The firm is known for charging top dollar for its services, often at rates that are well above the competition. There are believed to be more than 85 staffers across London, Dubai and Bahrain, generating billings in excess of £25m. Corporate clients are thought to account for less than 5% of the firm's revenue. 

In addition to Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell, the third key figure at the firm is Ryan Coetzee, who is also understood to be leading the Hong Kong assignment. Coetzee hails from a background in South African politics, where — curiously enough — he served as a Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance, the very party that helped trigger the demise of Bell Pottinger a few years later.

After moving to the UK in 2012 to play key roles in the Liberal Democrats' 2015 election rout and the ill-fated Remain campaign, it is understood that Coetzee joined Consulum, but his LinkedIn profile makes no mention of his current role.

The firm also employs former British diplomat Jolyon Welsh, although he is not believed to be working on the Hong Kong assignment, despite reports to the contrary. Details of other senior executives are scarce. Gunther-Bushell’s Powerbook entry lists assignments for the Government of Djibouti, the Republic of Nigeria, the sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi and Libya, while there are also reports of his previous work as a speechwriter for the former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, and as one-time media spokesman for the late Sir James Goldsmith. A 2003 profile of [Tim] Ryan makes much of his comfort with  “danger”.

Pointing the finger

Many in the PR industry were quick to proclaim a new ethical future for the profession following the implosion of Bell Pottinger. Even at the time, it was hard to take those proclamations without a hefty measure of salt. Saudi Arabia is not the only unsavoury regime that continues to exert an unerring gravitational pull on profit-hunting PR firms. Tobacco, arms, fossil fuels, big sugar — all are well-stocked with PR agency resources.

Much of that reflects the tension that often underpins sensitive PR assignments, where ‘ethical' counsel can often help steer an ‘unethical' client in the right direction, towards reform and — hopefully — better behaviour. After all, if the PR industry only worked with clients that boasted unblemished reputations, it would not be much of an industry.

But it also reflects a deeper cultural clash, as the global PR industry attempts to modernise its offering and image. On the one hand are multinational firms like Edelman and Weber Shandwick, eager to be seen as progressive, purpose-driven forces for good. On the other are a dwindling band of boutique consultancies that have helped saddle London with the moniker of ‘reputation laundering capital of the world.'

"Consulum is derived from an older (British) secrecy model of elite influence in political affairs and lobbying work on behalf of clients savoury and unsavoury,” says Jonathan Hardy, professor of communications and media at the London College of Communication. "That is increasingly out of step with firms that recognise that their ethics are on display and under scrutiny as never before and that they must be seen to be ethically integrated throughout their activities.”

This conflict is not quite as Manichaean as that diagnosis makes out. A big firm can quite easily harbour more progressive assignments alongside less savoury ones — fighting against gender violence in India, for example, while using dubious science to promote the benefits of vaping in Washington DC. But there are many PR leaders that see firms like Consulum as a blight on the industry’s collective reputation, willing to take on work that others will not, in return for the eye-catching budgets on offer.

As the Hong Kong situation reflects, smaller, less visible firms can more easily navigate the kind of geopolitical headwinds that might make front page news for a bigger player. The more successful these kinds of firms become, though, the less effective is that approach, as Consulum is perhaps finding out this week. 

This time, that tension has been brought to a head by Hong Kong, a city that now finds itself bracketed with the world’s more repressive regimes. "Choosing a PR partner goes a long way in signalling to stakeholders the intent and direction the client wishes to take,” says an agency source familiar with the Relaunch Hong Kong tender. “Unfortunately, by selecting Consulum, the Hong Kong government has indicated it’s in the same boat as Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Bahrain. This choice has put them on a back foot even before they made the first step.”

There are those willing to defend Consulum too. Mark Gallagher, whose firm Pagefield works with British American Tobacco, believes it is down to “personal and moral choice”, and that “the buck stops with the founder of each agency.”

“I think we have to be very careful about pointing the finger at other agencies and their choice of clients,” adds Gallagher. “If they can demonstrate they have thought through their decision about who to represent and why, then they are on a strong footing. In this particular case, I would relish the other side of the debate. But that’s because I’m not a fan of the Chinese government.”

Still, the finger pointing will persist, not least because it doesn’t hurt competing firms to suggest that they adhere to higher ethical standards than a potential rival. With PR firms consistently portrayed as willing to sacrifice morals in pursuit of margins, the grey areas in which they often play can be fertile soil for competing claims, regardless of the overall impact on the sector’s own reputation. 

"Not that repressive"

Whether Hong Kong will get a PR campaign worthy of the $6.3m it is due to spend may well be rendered moot, much to the chagrin of its taxpayers. The swift passage of the national security law has only heightened criticism of the city’s leaders, and elevated tensions between Beijing and several countries. 

"The narrative will be HK is a world class financial centre and it’s in everyone’s interests to sustain that,” says an agency source familiar with the situation. “[Consulum] will focus on the bits that are not that repressive.”

In any case, it seems hard to see how any global narrative cannot help but be undermined by the daily torrent of news emerging from Hong Kong, whether that involves journalists under risk or technology platforms considering their future in the city. And that, ultimately, is the bigger public relations issue for the beleaguered city, rather than its questionable choice of PR counsel.

"They cannot communicate their way out of this,” says a Hong Kong agency head, noting that a significant portion of the budget is earmarked for baseline research. "I don’t think it will be very useful research during a period of complete uncertainty."

More than one person has asked me whether Consulum is likely to reconsider its role given the opprobrium its hire has attracted. The firm's track record suggests that this kind of introspection is unlikely. Perhaps the best that can be said, in the words of the Hong Kong agency head, is that the city may well have found the firm that best suits its unique demands right now.

"If you are used to representing some controversial people, it may help. That’s the only positive thing I can say about it. They are not going to flinch when the going gets tough."

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