A US$5.7 million (HK$44,378,200) taxpayer-funded research report has found that people surveyed in Japan hold unfavourable views of Hong Kong. The results were part of research for a public relations campaign to “Relaunch Hong Kong.”

More than 40 per cent of the country’s interviewees had such an unfavourable opinion of the city that the consultancy behind the campaign categorised them as “unreachable,” according to a report found on a government website and a slideshow obtained by FactWire.

Photo: Carrie Yu.

Among the 14 countries surveyed, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Vietnam had the most positive opinions of Hong Kong. In order to rebuild businesses in these countries’ confidence in the city, the consultancy recommended that the government rebrand Hong Kong, stressing its economic advantages.

In June 2020, the Information Services Department awarded a one-year public relations contract to Consulum to develop publicity strategies to Relaunch Hong Kong. The contract was initially valued at around US$6.4 million but, due to changes in the promotional strategy and implementation timeline, was later reduced to US$5.7 million.

It nevertheless drew questions from lawmakers about whether the research was worth the cost. The government refused to provide a cost breakdown, saying that it involved sensitive information.

Consulum is a specialist government strategic communications consultancy, with six international offices in Bahrain, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Monaco and Riyadh. The consultancy had previously been employed by the Saudi Arabian government to rehabilitate its global image after it was accused of violating international law during its intervention in Yemen in 2015 and after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Research summary

Following the end of the contract period on July 30 last year, a research summary was uploaded to the government’s Brand Hong Kong website. One legislator changed her view after reading the summary, while others thought the government should provide more details on how the money was spent.

Photo: FactWire

In addition, a Consulum slideshow discussing strategies to Relaunch Hong Kong, dated July 2021, contained findings from two phases of research into perceptions of the city. While the summary and the slideshow shared some common information, certain findings and recommendations in the slideshow were not made public.

In two phases of research conducted in August 2020 and February 2021, over 11,000 interviewees from 14 target countries were placed in four audience categories based on an overall favorability index. The four categories, in descending order of favourability and receptiveness, were: “available”, “in-reach”, “peripheral”, and “unreachable”.

In the first phase, more than a quarter of respondents were placed in the “unreachable” category. Respondents in this category showed the least favourable opinion towards Hong Kong.

“Unreachable” audiences in South Korea and Japan accounted for 43.7 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively, of those interviewed in their countries, the highest in proportion of the countries surveyed. Singapore, where 39.9 per cent of respondents were deemed “unreachable”, came in third.

Victoria Harbour. Photo: WikiMedia.

The second phase of research, conducted six months later, saw a general rise in favourability towards Hong Kong, except in Japan, where the “unreachable” audience increased to 43.3 per cent, making it the country with the highest number of such respondents in the second phase. South Korea and Germany followed with 31.8 per cent and 29.7 per cent, respectively.

On the other hand, Hong Kong was seen most favourably in Vietnam, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand, where 47.8 per cent, 41.2 per cent, 37.4 per cent and 34.5 per cent of respondents, respectively, were deemed “available” in the second phase. They were also the countries with the least number of “unreachable” respondents.

Social unrest did ‘significant damage’

The research identified social unrest as having caused “significant damage” to Hong Kong’s brand, to the detriment of international perceptions of security, safety, rule of law, judicial independence and freedom in Hong Kong.

In addition, the research found that the national security law exacerbated this damage.

Based on the statistics, the conclusion was drawn that Hong Kong’s positioning needed to involve a “fundamental separation between politics and security, and Hong Kong as an economics and lifestyle destination.”

The positioning should involve four elements, suggested the research summary – namely, “Hong Kong’s global nature and ability to innovate into the future”, “Hong Kong as a gateway to Mainland China and South East Asia”, “a focus on economics and lifestyle”, and “Hong Kong as an exciting, attractive place to live.”

File photo: May James.

The summary also identified some necessary preconditions to delivering that positioning, which included separating politics from economics in both policy-making and communications, having a more coherent communications ecosystem, and to make strategies and structural changes owned and driven by senior leadership.

The research involved creating a core message and four supporting messages to promote Hong Kong. In the second phase, interviewees from 14 countries assessed whether those messages were effective.

Respondents in Indonesia, Thailand and the UAE found the core message – “Hong Kong is the only city in the world that offers a secure, dynamic environment for business, an exciting cosmopolitan lifestyle and direct access to the Mainland Chinese economy; all at the same time,” – the most believable.

The metric employed by the researchers was a “net believability score” obtained by subtracting the scores from respondents who did not find the message believable from the scores of those who did. These net believability scores were calculated to be 88, 83 and 73 for Indonesia, Thailand, and the UAE, respectively.

Photo: FactWire

In contrast, Japan scored just three, ranking last amongst the 14 countries, ahead of Germany and the United Kingdom, which scored 24 and 30, respectively.

Supporting messages

Not only did Japan find the core message less believable than the other surveyed countries, respondents from Japan also gave low net scores to the four supporting messages of the campaign: “Hong Kong is a safe, growing market with considerable potential;” “Hong Kong is the ideal springboard to the Mainland Chinese and Asian markets;” “Hong Kong has a reputation for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit;” and “Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan character and cultural richness make it a great place to live.”

Each supporting message was further supplemented by a number of proof points. As an example, the following were used to support the final point: “Hong Kong has a wide choice of international schools (50+) and curricula;” “Hong Kong is a nature lovers’ paradise with 40% of land designated as country parks that contain spectacular hiking trails within close proximity [to] the CBD;” and “Hong Kong is ranked first worldwide for healthcare efficiency, a vital element in the ongoing fight against Covid-19.”

File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP

According to the Consulum slideshow, the respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with each message twice: before, and then after they heard the proof points, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the messages and their proof points. This test was not mentioned in the report released by the government.

Lowest scores from Japan

For all four supporting messages, Japan gave the lowest scores both before and after hearing the proof points. Moreover, the scores for messages one and four were negative, meaning that the messages and proof points were ineffective in persuading Japanese respondents.

Amongst the messages, the fourth received the lowest score from Japanese respondents. It scored -24 at first, which increased to -11 after the proof points were presented. These were the lowest scores from any of the 14 countries among all four messages.

In contrast, those countries that showed the greatest overall favourability towards Hong Kong – Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the UAE – gave the highest scores for all the supporting messages. They provided scores ranging from 60 to 89.

Photo: FactWire

Comparing the overall scores for each supporting message after the proof points were presented, supporting messages three and two were the most generally agreed upon, scoring 62 and 60 respectively. Supporting message one came last, with 47 points.

Consulum’s recommendation in its slideshow was a so-called “targeted business confidence campaign,” focusing on key and influential people – business leaders, investors and talent.

To promote positive messages about Hong Kong within these demographics, the consultancy recommended that the government undertake promotional activities on three levels, including through social media and email up to two or three times a week, having monthly market-specific promotional campaigns, and to further create four or more “global moments” through large-scale events, documentaries, live broadcasts, sponsorships and media partnerships. These recommendations are not found in the official government report.

Central district. Photo: GovHK.

In the final part of the slideshow, Consulum reiterated their confidence in a business-focused campaign, submitting that the proposed messages are powerful enough to shift target audiences’ favour towards Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong’s Covid response and resilient economic fundamentals can help keep the city ahead of the pack when it comes to the post pandemic recovery,” it said.

‘Market responses were favourable”

“The research found varying degrees of receptiveness to positive messages about Hong Kong in selected target markets. Market responses were favourable towards Brand Hong Kong attributes such as cosmopolitanism, diversity, dynamism and connectedness. Hong Kong’s lifestyle quality was also rated very highly for dining at quality restaurants, attending world-class events, and visiting theatres or museums,” said Hong Kong’s Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui, in a statement on August 18 of last year.

He did not mention any of Japan’s negative views revealed by the research.

Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The one-year public relations contract for the Relaunch Hong Kong campaign was awarded to Consulum after an open tender in June 2020. The contract period was extended for about a month to end on July 30 last year.

The contract’s price tag was called into question by several legislators. Alice Mak from the Federation of Trade Unions thought the government did not have to spend HK$44 million to learn about Hong Kong’s advantages, such as its access to the mainland’s market, questioning whether the price of the research was inflated because it was performed by a foreign company.

Another legislator and member of the Executive Council, Regina Ip, was critical of the research results, calling them common sense and saying that the local government should have been able to conduct the research itself.

In response to the legislators’ questions, the acting Secretary for Home Affairs Jack Chan said on September 1 last year that the government thought the price was “very reasonable,” given that the consultancy had to deliver a wide range of services, and that the consultancy’s service had fulfilled the requirements. He added that there can be great variation in pricing for global consultancy studies of a similar nature.

In addition, Chan said the consultancy had proposed specific publicity and promotional strategies with such a fine grain of detail as to have drafted advertisements and suggested products, though these had not yet been revealed to the public since the campaign was still in development as of September 1, 2021.

A screenshot of the Brand Hong Kong website. Photo: Screenshot, via https://www.brandhk.gov.hk.

Information about a campaign named “Hong Kong. A world of opportunities,” launched in December 2021, can be found on the official Brand Hong Kong website. The core and supporting messages of Consulum’s research are listed on the web page, although there is no indication as to whether this is part of the Relaunch Hong Kong campaign.

FactWire sent an enquiry to the Information Services Department to ask if the government would make an effort to promote Hong Kong in countries that have a worse impression of Hong Kong, and if so, how. Questions concerning the budgetary breakdown of the Consulum contract and the schedule for the implementation of the Relaunch Hong Kong campaign were also put forward.

The government refused to provide a cost breakdown, saying that it contains commercially-sensitive information. It did not say how it would promote the city specifically in countries that favour Hong Kong less. The implementation timeline of the campaign will largely hinge on developments on the Covid-19 front and the contingent recovery of business activities, it said, restating that the contract price was “very reasonable”, in the government’s opinion.

Speaking with FactWire, Ip said she changed her view after reading the report. Consulum’s global network justifies the high cost of the research, she said. “The Information Services Department would not have been able to perform the research so professionally. Should we have tasked the economic and trade office with this research instead? We could have, but the results would have been less than professional.”

Regina Ip. Photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

Legislator Peter Shiu, of the wholesale and retail constituency, did not know that the report had already been uploaded on the government’s website, calling it a “sneaky” act. “A lot of people, regardless of political stance, have been wondering what the government has done with those forty-some million dollars,” he said.

Former legislator Abraham Shek, who also raised questions about the contract’s cost last year, told FactWire that he was similarly unaware that the report had been uploaded. He saw it as improper for the government to have only uploaded the report to its website without informing the public, urging the Audit Commission and legislators of the current term to determine whether the research was indeed value for money.

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