SCMP Saturday, May 12, 2001

PR-puff: the magic dragon


A dragon. After shelling out $9.4 million to consultants in an attempt to develop an international public-relations strategy for Hong Kong, a logo and a slogan - "Asia's world city" - is the sum of what officials have to show for their year-long efforts. The slogan is not even new, having been used over the past two years by Tung Chee-hwa and his advisers.
When bureaucrats announced in April last year that PR-firm Burson-Marsteller has been appointed to study international perceptions of Hong Kong, it was expected that the Government might finally obtain a comprehensive blueprint to better promote the SAR abroad.
In the wake of crisis after crisis, ranging from Beijing's overturning of a key Court of Final Appeal ruling in 1999 to protests over plummeting property prices and constant concerns about pollution, the SAR's image suffered in the international media.
Nowhere in the fancy shopping-bag-style press kit of glossy brochures released by the Government on Thursday was there a comprehensive PR strategy for presenting a better image of Hong Kong - apart from the new logo and slogan. Nor did questioning of officials reveal any evidence that such a document has even been produced.
Brochures boasted of the "world's freest economy", the rule of law as a "defining ideology", "a free and open society", an international business hub, innovation and technology, law enforcement and anti-corruption efforts as well as "accountable government".
So much for a grand strategy. Hong Kong's hopes of building a new profile in the fickle and demanding international marketplace of images, it seems, have been placed on a dragon.
"It's not right to think we paid $9.4 million just for the logo," says Kerry McGlynn, deputy director of the Information Services Department. "There was a strategic development element that was designed to draw out the key images and how they should be presented."
The consultants carried out interviews with business people, government officials, media and community leaders from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and the United States, as well as Hong Kong.
However, Mr McGlynn was unable to provide information about any broader public-relations strategy for dealing with international perceptions or countering negative media reports. The exercise is apparently limited to developing a brand image for Hong Kong.
The logo was launched amid great fanfare. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa unveiled it before business executives at the Fortune Global Forum.
Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen gushed about the "elegant, wonderful dragon", but tempered his enthusiasm by saying more hard work was needed to solve the SAR's problems. "A logo alone cannot achieve magic, but the logo can certainly focus our attention on the advantages of Hong Kong," he gushed.
Mr Tsang led a panel of officials, including Mr Tung's spin-doctor Stephen Lam Sui-lung, Invest Hong Kong head Mike Rowse, Information Services Department director Thomas Chan Chun-yuen and Tourism Commissioner Rebecca Lai Ko Wing-yee at a press conference.
Mr Tsang has high hopes for the dragon. "The branding will highlight Hong Kong's position as a world city in Asia, which is a rather unique feature. It will then attract more international businessmen . . . to focus on Hong Kong. It is likely to bring more investments into Hong Kong; more businessmen coming to Hong Kong."
It is hoped the dragon will inspire more companies to set up regional headquarters and create more jobs.
Mr Lam, the Government's information co-ordinator, said the research showed Hong Kong was "there already" as far as being an international finance and trade centre. But it had to identify "certain areas where we need to continue to improve" such as pollution, quality of life, arts and culture.
Despite the attention given in the local and international media to the right-of-abode controversy, which prompted Hong Kong's lawyers to stage a rare protest march, and the fears that tycoons could receive preferential treatment under the law raised by the decision not to prosecute media tycoon Sally Aw Sian for a newspaper circulation scandal, a report of the survey results claimed: "There is also a broad-based awareness that the rule of law in Hong Kong is being preserved."
The slogan, "Asia's world city", is not new. It has been used in speeches by Mr Tung over the past two years and was cited in the Commission for Strategic Development's report last year. It is also said to have been used in an earlier study of Hong Kong produced in 1997.
Frontier legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing was scathing about the choice of a Chinese dragon as the symbol to identify "Asia's world city". "I want Hong Kong's image to be international," she said. "For an international city to have a dragon - it is a very powerful symbol and it is very Chinese - does not make sense."
Ms Lau suggested officials seemed to have kept spending on the project below $10 million, the trigger point which would have required scrutiny by the Legislative Council: "I really question whether it is value for money." She described the unveiling of the dragon at the Fortune Global Forum, images of which were dominated by protests and overseas Falun Gong practitioners being denied entry to Hong Kong, as unfortunate.
Burson-Marsteller was chosen, among other reasons, because of the firm's international reach, said Mr McGlynn. The dragon was designed by Landor Associates, which also produced Cathay Pacific's logo, and research was conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide.
A public-relations executive, who had been among the nine leading agencies that tendered for the project but was unsuccessful, said the Government appeared to have decided to market its brand image internationally rather than seek to build a consensus in Hong Kong on its own strengths.
Developing an internal consensus among influential decision-makers and community leaders before launching a brand image involved consultation and "making sure they all had a clear understanding of where Hong Kong was going and [what it was] striving to achieve", said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Instead, the Government has launched the logo and slogan and will spend the coming weeks and months informing the community about the "visual image."
"The story that correspondents are writing goes into papers around the world. If they do not get the message that Hong Kong is marketing then a lot of money can be wasted," the executive added.
The Commission for Strategic Development report, which formed the basis for developing a brand image, clearly calls for a programme promoting Hong Kong's "vision and unique assets". It said the programme's major components should include developing a "clear overall image for Hong Kong based around a vision that communicates the attractiveness and distinctiveness of Hong Kong and Hong Kong's programmes to realise that vision".
It would also involve establishing a mechanism to ensure all public bodies delivered a consistent external message requiring an "umbrella strategy" for promotion and ensuring continuing collaboration and communication between organisations.
Mr McGlynn said government organisations were being briefed on the branding.
City University of Hong Kong political science professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, who has been critical of what he describes as officials' dependence on public relations, said residents would like to "see something more concrete".
"Hong Kong people don't feel they have yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel," he said, referring to the regional economic crisis which hit shortly after the 1997 return to Chinese rule. "They are rather cynical today of the Government's performance. If it can't come up with something concrete the public will be very cynical."
Glenn Schloss ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.
In tomorrow's Sunday Morning Post: Donald Tsang on the benefits of Hong Kong's new branding campaign.