A LinkedIn post from a very senior Public Relations evangelist triggered this article. Since June Hong Kong has been gripped by unrest owing to widespread protests against a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China. Pictures of massive protest rallies accompanying the updates, bear witness to the widespread public support for the cause. This sustained campaign has understandably adversely impacted the reputation of Hong Kong in the eyes of the global audience.
The deteriorating image of Asia’s leading business and financial hub prompted the Hong Kong government to float an RFP to seek counsel from leading Public Relations firms. The brief sought strategic communication advice to help salvage its reputation in key overseas markets. Eight leading global Public Relations consultancies were approached and a few even attended the briefing. However, not even one went back with a proposal. It would be an interesting exercise to analyse the reasons which they gave for opting out and not submitting their proposals!
So, what’s wrong in seeking counsel from Public Relations firms when one is facing a reputation challenge? Isn’t this what the PR firms are experts at? That’s their bread and butter as they provide counsel to clients on how to improve their image and implement strategies to build reputation. Their ability to reach out to various publics and influence behavior is what they are famous for. The simplistic answer is that there is nothing wrong. However, there is definitely more to it than meets the eye. Otherwise why would all eight consultancies refuse to provide counsel? Perhaps they doubt the intent behind the exercise. It is highly unlikely that the administration wants to get to the root cause of the issue and find a solution. The Government seem focused on reputation damage in the overseas market and how to rectify it.
It reminds me of numerous such examples that I have encountered during the last two decades of my professional journey where clients exhibited a blinkered approach and were fixated on finding quick fixes. The consultancy is summoned and handed over the task of salvaging the reputation right in the middle of a crisis. (That’s what they are good at!) When the team goes back and starts analysing the evidence, more often than not, they realise that it’s not just a communications problem and the solution involves addressing fundamental issues first. The consultancy team is left with two choices. The first one is easy – focus just on the allotted task and do the best to manage the external fire by espousing the version provided by the client.
The second and the more difficult one being, to go back to the client with a more sustainable and holistic solution. This is a risky proposition. Not every client is mature enough and may feel that the consultancy is trying to pass the buck. They may even lose confidence in the consultancy’s ability to manage the crisis. I have been a witness to several such cases, where there has been a total disconnect between the piecemeal solution sought from the consultancy and the actual issues that need to be addressed. In such cases the solutions do not work and the situation continues to remain precarious till the client side finally accepts the ground reality and starts addressing the root cause.
That is why it is worth taking a risk and agencies should take the second route. They should not hesitate to address the elephant in the room. It however, needs to be done tactfully. I have seen that in more than 50% of the cases, the senior leadership values an outsider’s perspective as they are very well aware that they are unlikely to get an unbiased feedback from their internal teams. A huge responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Corporate Communications Head and the consultancy partners to bring the outside-in perspective and hold the mirror in front of the management. Smart CEOs understand this and rely on their Communication’s team to play the role of being the soul of the organisation.
Consultancies also need to assess whether the client is ethically and morally above board and only stick their neck out when they are convinced. Trying to solve larger fundamental issues only through a narrow communications lens are akin to using a band-aid to cure a serious illness. It won’t work!