Were global PR firms justified in rejecting work with the Hong Kong government?

Eight global public relations firms approached by the Hong Kong government turned down the chance to work on a campaign to burnish the city’s credentials. To put it mildly, Hong Kong’s reputation had of late taken a beating – following a spate of ongoing protests against a controversial extradition law. 

In a transcript of a closed door meeting between Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and some business leaders published by Reuters, it was revealed that she had approached these agencies with a mandate to relaunch ‘Brand Hong Kong’. 

Four of them rejected the assignment outright, claiming that supporting the government would be a detriment to their reputation. The other agencies also nervously backed away from the project, according to media reports.

The need for a PR makeover appears to be critical. Recently, the Asia Video Association Summit shifted location from Hong Kong to Singapore. There has been a steep decline in inbound air traffic and hotel bookings.   

Mumbrella spoke to Golin managing director for Singapore and South East Asia Tarun Deo and Redhill partner Jacob Puthenparambil for their take on the Hong Kong crisis, and the situations in which they believe it makes sense for a PR firm to walk away.

What do you believe is the right time for a PR firm to turn down business? And does the Hong Kong crisis qualify?

Golin’s Tarun Deo

Tarun Deo: “There can be several factors but some elements that I’d like to point out in this instance are timing and clarity on who is in charge. If they resorted to looking for an agency now or recently, it is almost akin to a patient with stage four cancer trying to find a surgeon.

“Anyone who would want to sign up, would have to take a professional decision on what they can do or whether they can be helpful, since it’s not just a case of taking the money and running. 

“The second aspect is finding out who is in charge, since not knowing that muddies the water. You need some confidence that the advice will be effectively carried out. 

“There are obviously many more reasons, but as an agency head, if I got something like this on the table, these are some of the questions I would have asked.” 

Jacob Puthenparambil: “What the agencies are doing is pretty silly. A PR agency is like a law firm: they cannot make judgment calls when someone comes to them for help. If someone is getting a bad rap across the world as a thief or a murderer and is insisting on his innocence, what if lawyers were to say: ‘We won’t take your case because everyone thinks you are guilty’? 

“I’ve seen situations where agencies have taken on such clients and the staff begins revolting. My advice (to the staff) is in that case, don’t work for a PR agency. I will draw the line where there are UN sanctions against a country. But in this case, there’s a legitimate government with a legitimate international communication issue. 

“There are double standards at play here – these agencies have no problems running an office in Hong Kong or working for other clients. I would never advise a company to take a moral call because its subjective. As the world gets more flat and interconnected, you should not be the one to decide what is good or bad. 

“It’s a little condescending being told who we should or should not work for. Everyone should be aligned to the growth of the business. It is different if you have it in the constitution of the company – like firms that do not work on the ‘sin’ industries like tobacco and alcohol. 

“We were not approached by the Hong Kong government maybe because they don’t know we exist. But if they were to ask us, we’d jump at the opportunity.”

What are the risks associated for the PR firm in engaging with clients during these crisis situations?

Tarun Deo: “The worst case scenario on an issue where people are divided is that participating would have brought the reality of the conflict into the organisation. “Would that be the right thing to do? As an agency, you have multiple clients. Would that disrupt the normal operations of the company? That would be primary concern.” 

Redhill’s Jacob Puthenparambil

Jacob Puthenparambil: “The internal discussions that the agencies who rejected this assignment had were probably about using this as a PR hook for their own firm or it being a PR risk. Agencies are putting themselves and their PR in front of what they should offer potential clients who come to them not for charity, but for their services.

“Another aspect is size. The same thing happened with the recent protests against Brunei, when there are several countries with similar laws. Agencies pick on relatively smaller places to show a moral high ground. For instance, how many MNCs would stop working in India due to what’s happening in Kashmir

“In an ideal world, you should not decline a client, especially in a time of crisis. As an industry, that’s when you can show how important you are. 

“We’ve had cases where we declined business because, on enquiry, we found the establishment seeking us out was corrupt. But we don’t go to the world and announce it. I think the Hong Kong government should appoint a local agency that knows the place. They should stop relying on international PR firms. You need to feel passionately about the client.

“I often tell my staff: ‘think and act like a client’. Many times, you need to have unpleasant conversations with journalists. The conventional wisdom is that between client and journalist, you choose the latter because clients keep changing. 

“I disagree. If you carry on like that, you will have journalist friends but none of the clients will stay with you or trust you.”


What is the most appropriate time for Hong Kong to start a PR push in your opinion?

Tarun Deo: “People keep questioning: ‘Do you need to have PR? Do you need to work at your reputation? Do you need a crisis preparedness plan?’ 

“And so, herein lies the lesson for any organisation conducting its business in the public domain. This is not something that can be approached in a less than optimal or strategic manner. Having agencies in place and options ready is good corporate practice. Today, you need an always on strategy.

“There is no ‘right time’ to be prepared for a PR crisis. You have to be prepared all the time. Clearly these guys have been found wanting. 

“Even a forward thinking government like this has fallen on its own sword by being unprepared.”

Jacob Puthenparambil: “If you start looking for agencies when you are in crisis, you are already too late. The crisis never happens when you have systems in place. There are other aspects to be highlighted – people are still visiting; I’m going for a holiday in two weeks. It is still a hub for finance and the work has not been affected. 

“They should have had emergency powers to appoint someone or the government’s publicity arm should have worked on this. Agencies should let the world know the Hong Kong government’s side of the story and be part of the solution. Our role as communicators is to remove friction and start dialogue. But here we are adding to that friction.”


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