The Hong Kong government has agreed to pay millions of pounds to a discreet London-based PR firm in a bid to counter coverage of the territory in the international media.
Consulum, which has also represented Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, was awarded the £5m one-year contract to improve Hong Kong’s reputation on Monday – the same day that China passed a new security law targeting local pro-democracy activists.
The Mayfair-based PR business was founded by Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell, two former employees of Bell Pottinger, an agency that has been criticised for representing some governments and leaders that other businesses would not touch.
The administration said it needed the support of a PR agency because of reputational damage caused by recent protests. It accepted it had failed to “mobilise the community to support law enforcement actions and condemn intimidation, doxxing, vandalism and the criminal and violent behaviour of rioters” during last year’s protests, in which protesters and police clashed regularly.
“Addressing these perceptions to effectively tell the Hong Kong story to targeted global audiences will be critical to support Hong Kong’s economic recovery,” said the territory’s government in its tender document.
The deal cements London’s reputation as a global base for PR companies representing overseas governments, with the contract to improve overseas perceptions of Hong Kong particularly controversial at a time when the UK government is adopting an increasingly aggressive stance toward China.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has offered visas to millions of Hong Kong residents in the face of threats from China, while on Tuesday the EU condemned China’s “deplorable decision” to press ahead with its new security laws, which will criminalise secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Hong Kong initially struggled to convince international PR companies to represent the territory amid rising anti-government protests in late 2019, according to industry outlet Provoke. Many agencies felt unable or unwilling to represent an administration that was attracting criticism from around the world, with Beijing increasingly interfering directly in the affairs of the former British colony.
The brief for the government PR contract was rewritten early this year to move the focus away from the political aspect of Carrie Lam’s administration and more on the challenge of presenting Hong Kong “as a place to invest, do business, work and live”.
Despite this, many leading PR companies chose not to take part in the bidding process, with some raising concerns about potential ethical conflicts, the concerns of other clients and the high-stakes nature of the contract.
The Hong Kong government has also faced issues convincing local PR professionals to represent them. A group calling itself the Hong Kong Public Relations and Communications Professional Union objected to the decision to hire a PR company rather than deal with the underlying issues, since “the best crisis management strategy builds upon facts and the ability to accept responsibility”.
Consulum declined to comment on the contract but it will be required to open a Hong Kong office as part of the move. The company has long-term interests in Saudi Arabia and was previously heavily involved in rebranding the country under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although this was derailed by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On Tuesday, many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists shut down their social media profiles and closed campaign groups amid fears they could be jailed as a result of the new security law, which is due to come into effect on the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong returning to Chinese rule.