Something is rotten in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. That much is clear not just to those of us who love it and call it home, but to the rest of the world as well. It is not for nothing that two million people brave heat, rain, work disruptions, and risk their own safety to protest as they have done in Hong Kong, with large numbers continuing to make a stand.

Beyond the specific exigent demands following the protest and disproportionate police aggression of June 12th, the city’s future appears to be on tenterhooks. A palpable fear of the disruption of the very nature of the social contract of Hong Kong’s special administration permeates the city, so much so that the protests have seen a vast and diverse range of people join – a far cry from what anyone might imagine as the usual composition of a protest.

hong kong protester extradition
Photo: Miguelitor.

So far, the public has received some questionable apologies and statements from the leadership, with a sprinkle of tears for good measure (cleverly illustrated for posterity). And they aren’t buying it. This is an obviously sticky political situation, and a visible crisis of leadership.

It is not a stretch to see similarities between politicians and senior management in some corporate settings. While the job descriptions for leadership roles may call for courage, empathy, vision, management, communication, and problem-solving skills, the reality is that these roles are often staffed by people hired for their ability to operate without them, or to be amenable to ignoring them. Sometimes, they may well be bereft of them, but may have learned to walk the talk temporarily. The ability to gaslight people and ultimately, to toe the line with the board or particular investors can, unfortunately, be the hireable qualities that take precedence over actually leading.

carrie lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Of course, reader, you might say that expecting true leadership in some environments is rather naive and idealistic. People are shoved into compromises, and some situations are inherently compromised when allegiances must follow the power. And of course, corporations have profit margins to consider and politicians should not. Leaving aside HR and management speak, let’s pop on a public relations lens for a moment then.

Hearing and reading the various statements following June 12th has left a lot of people baffled because true leadership aside, even the basic performative and persuasive PR elements are lacking. The attempts have ranged from condescending admonishments to pseudo-sincerity and lack of personal engagement from various panjandrums, and have resulted in nothing other than tipping things from the frying pan into the fire.

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

What advice has the leadership been operating on that it thinks releasing oddly phrased apologies – and only after things have gotten viciously out of hand – will persuade the protesters? Have they done no research on their audience? Have they not thought through their messaging at all? Why have they paid no attention to appropriate communication mediums? Why haven’t they considered actually showing penitence for the way things were handled on June 12th instead of weakly promising people who have little reason to trust them, that sincerity will come in the future?

The only attempt at public relations savviness observed so far was nauseating in its transparency and other gendered implications – that of staffing up the police front-lines with female officers on June 16th when about 2 million people took to the streets, numbers augmented over concern with police action on the 12th.

Unlike Horatio’s hope for rotten Denmark in response to Marcello’s prescient remark in Hamlet, heaven isn’t going to direct Hong Kong’s future path. Let’s see if the protests will, or if we will see some sparks of effort coming from the organised leadership powers in government and beyond. While nothing is perfect, the only source of courage, empathy, vision, communication, management, and attempt at problem-solving has been some of the protesters themselves so far. Let’s also hope we have no other uses for quotes from Hamlet in this situation – after all, it is considered a tragedy.

The Hong Kong Free Press #PressForFreedom 2019 Funding Drive seeks to raise HK$1.2m to support our non-profit newsroom and dedicated team of multi-media, multi-lingual reporters. HKFP is backed by readers, run by journalists and is immune to political and commercial pressure. This year’s critical fundraiser will provide us with the essential funds to continue our work into next year.

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Sai Pradhan is an advisor, writer, and artist. For more on her advisory work, please see her LinkedIn profile. To see her artwork, please see her website.