Hong Kong seeks to hire PR crisis firm—but finds no takers

The city discovered that no global agency was ready to mop up its reputational mess as pro-democracy protestors have revealed cracks in public perception of the Asian business hub.

Hong Kong learned the hard way how hard it can be to hire a crisis management team in the middle of an emergency.

The Holmes Report revealed that not a single global agency could be persuaded to take the beleaguered city’s case.

Hong Kong has faced turmoil from protestors who worry about growing interference from mainland China, which governs the island but has operated a “one nation, two systems” policy since the island was returned to Chinese control in 1997. The Chinese government has worked to exert more influence on the island, most recently passing a law that Hong Kong residents could be extradited to the mainland to serve prison sentences.

The new rule sparked outcry from islanders who worried that the Chinese government would jail political adversaries and clamp down on the freedom of expression that Hong Kong residents long enjoyed. The protests have made international news as millions have marched, service to Hong Kong’s globally significant airport has been interrupted, and scuffles with police have turned violent.

Thanks, but no thanks

As global business leaders have reevaluated their investments and commitments in Hong Kong, the government apparently decided to try to spin its predicament—but could find no takers.

The Holmes Report wrote:

According to a spokesperson for the Hong Kong government, “The Information Services Department (ISD) carried out a quotation exercise to procure services for external promotion. The quotation exercise lapsed as no bid was received by the close of the quotation period.”

The ISD added that it has “no immediate plan to conduct [another] procurement exercise of a similar nature.”

For the agencies that said no, there were a couple of red flags. Several complained about the RFP and Hong Kong’s misunderstanding of the true problems it faces as it tries to rebuild its reputation.

The Holmes Report continued:

“If you want an absolutely living, breathing example of why they’ve got problems, it’s to put out a multifaceted RFP while the streets are on fire,” said one agency source invited to take part. “It was completely misjudged.”

Ogilvy Hong Kong MD Clara Shek confirmed the agency had taken part in the briefing but did not proceed because of the tight “turnaround time”. The RFP called for proposals to be submitted one week after the briefing.

Representatives from Ruder Finn and Brunswick did not respond to requests for comment as this story went live.

Some agencies might be more judicious in choosing their clientele as recent incidents have proved that communications pros are not immune to the crises they try to manage. Ogilvy took heat for its relationship with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency amid reports of mistreatment and dangerous living conditions for immigrants along the southern U.S. border.

As previously reported by PR Daily, employees were significantly affected by Ogilvy’s stance.

Here’s what one employee had to say:

“So I think what I heard is that we’re willing to work with companies that have oil spills. We’re willing to work with companies that sell big tobacco. We’re willing to work with companies that contribute to obesity rates. And I guess, what I’m mostly hearing is that we’re willing to work with companies that are allowing children to die and that are running concentration camps.”

Speaking out versus staying mum

Several studies in recent years have noted that consumers and employees want their organizations to be more vocal on cultural and political issues.

A study from Sprout Social reports that two-thirds of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues—and the report even suggests that brands face more reward than risk when they do speak.

However, other reports show consumers say businesses should avoid politics:

Other reports suggest that employees are split on whether they want their employers to take an active political role.

Why are there such conflicting arguments showing up in the data?

One interesting part of the Sprout Social report is the importance of relevance of the political topic to your business. The more relevant the issue is to your core operations and stakeholders, the more likely respondents believe your organization should have a strong response.

For communications and PR agencies, what could be more relevant than your clients’ moral ambiguity?

Both CBP and the Hong Kong government face unique challenges as government—and therefore political—entities. When taking on a government client, an agency in today’s media landscape is stepping into the political arena and should be prepared for any and all subsequent turmoil.

Choosing clients

Is Hong Kong a sign of a trend in the PR industry that big agencies won’t be willing to take on organizations in the middle of a full-blown crisis? That’s probably an oversimplification.

Plenty of factors make the Hong Kong government a risky client in 2019. However, communicators must take note of the volatile landscape and should work hard to develop their crisis communication plans well ahead of time, rather than wait for disaster to strike before leaning on industry experts.

If you opt for the latter, you might find no one is willing to take your case.


2 Responses to “Hong Kong seeks to hire PR crisis firm—but finds no takers”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    We can see from this cutting edge PR Daily report that it’s almost like being accused of rape, murder or child molesting. Every major country, company and association can be accused. PR firms and even lawyers are reluctant to help the accused, but Protective PR now can help save your management’s hide later and make you look like a PR genius if the accusation is made without much success.

    ANYONE CAN BE ACCUSED. It was China after Tianenman Square, Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi was killed, Russia after annexing Crimea, Ford and years later General Motors over safety issues, Facebook over privacy, Wells Fargo and other banks over fairness to depositors, plus scores of other situations.

    THE TEMPTATION IS TO DENY. At first an account may deny it happened, and later deny that the results were as bad as some say. But denial of truth makes an account look even more guilty. And claiming that “it’s not as bad as they say” or that those injured “were partly responsible,” has the effect of admitting guilt seeming to blame the victims—a dangerous move even if the victims were in truth partly to blame. Most people may identify with the victims more than with a big company.

    THE PUBLIC IS BIASED. People tend to blame fiercely or barely at all based on not jut the accusation but based on GOOD things the public knows about the accused. If a community’s beloved teacher or doctor is found to have paid way too little in taxes, the public may favor leniency. Political leaders say that “people may deserve a second chance.” If a popular kid is caught smoking pot or if a religious leader’s daughter has sinned, there may be more forgiveness than for a kid with a police record. It’s similar with countries and companies: the public judges some more harshly and others with forgiveness for error.

    NOT ALL GOOD DEEDS ARE EQUAL. The public tends to judge not by how much good did you do but how much good FOR US. Helping the blind or inner city poor is admirable but most people are neither. Minorities deserve help but people who dislike minorities may actually think LESS of countries or companies that help them. The good cause that may bring you more public gratitude than any other is health. If you’re spending $50 million a year on research to fight heart disease, cancer or Alzheimer’s, a good 200 million Americans may prefer that NOTHING bad should be done to you by our government if that could reduce your ability to keep spending $50 million a year on health research that could help us.

    IMPORTANT: YOUR WAIT AND FATE. In 2003 oil-rich Qatar gave close to $3 billion (with a “b”) for education and health research to Weil Cornell but the royal family member who wanted the donation didn’t know to do PR promptly so today because of the wait almost no one knows about it. Before Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman had the reins of government, it was suggested that the Saudis could be self-protective by donating a gleaming research building to America’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The brainy prince was not yet in power, so the country “saved” a billion or half a billion by not doing it only now that Iranian missiles or drones have bombed a huge Saudi refinery, are American political leaders calling for retaliation so terrorists can’t get away with inflicting World Trade Center murders on other countries?

    MANAGEMENTS REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. It’s easy and tempting to assume “my management would NEVER go for a huge public relations project” but look at how managements DO spend gladly for security, R&D and corporate acquisitions to keep a top company on top going into the future. So never say never. You can make a case to management that even major companies like GM and Facebook can be hit—and years ago the chemical and paper companies and even IBM—and are BEING hit by accusations that can lead to billions in corporate damage.

    The goal is not to get a ton of budget money now but to get management’s approval for the ideas that:

    .1. There’s a danger management can foresee. An accusation that leads to major corporate damage is possible.

    .2. A program of Preventive PR is worth considering.

    .3. A sensible, almost no-cost first step could be to call in ten top PR firms for a Protective PR capabilities presentation.

    Not expensive. The proposal can be to call them in and listen to what they may have to say. Objective: to protect not just “our good name” but—and with some managements you can say this—our ass.

    PRDailyreader says:

    Or what if the agencies are too deeply invested in mainland China and don’t want to risk losing those clients?

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