The bad press began after the Government released an ad campaign - that allegedly cost more than US$1 million of taxpayer's money - encouraging Hong Kong citizens to support the reform. This included a TVC that was only successful in generating all the wrong kind of publicity, particularly in online forums where the ad's confusingly sentimental theme was pilloried.
More seriously, critics accused the Government of using public money to pay for a political ad, which they said contradicted Hong Kong's Broadcasting Ordinance. The Government said the campaign was promoting policy that could be included under a public service remit.
Faced with growing public discontent, the Government, under the stewardship of Chief Executive Donald Tsang decided to take their message to the streets. However, the opposition was ready and Tsang's message of "Act now" was drowned out by shouts of "All wrong". The next morning's newspapers were dominated by images of a flustered-looking Tsang surrounded by jeering opponents.
The Government fought back last week, organising a pro-reform rally in Hong Kong's Victoria Park, which it claimed 70,000 people attended. However, it soon emerged that a number of the 'supporters' had been bused to the park and had little knowledge of why they were there. According to the South China Morning Post newspaper, many had been brought to the rally as part of a subsidised (again from public coffers) city tour that included a seafood lunch and a guided walk in Central and Soho.
And, while the reforms have now been passed, albeit in a compromised form, the damage to Hong Kong's image may be more lasting.
- Currently only half of Hong Kong's law makers are directly elected.
- The Hong Kong Government's ad campaign to rally support for its 2012 political reform package allegedly cost the taxpayer more than US$1 million.
- The reform package looks likely to pass, but still fails to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage.
Brand health diagnosis
Christine Loh, CEO at Civic Exchange in Hong Kong:
"The Government is under siege because the people, and even business, are frustrated. They know Hong Kong's freedoms and rule of law are magnificent attributes and are worried the Government doesn't know how to expand and promote them. They also want officials to be resolute to solve specific problems like air pollution, and long standing issues like unscrupulous sales methods in property deals. Indecision or small increments don't impress. Another logo and PR campaign are seen as just that.
It is a pity that the Hong Kong brand has to suffer because of the Government. It needs a political overhaul because Hong Kong's problem is that it can't have a real election where parties battle it out to win the people's mandate and act upon it. The bureaucrats-turned-politicians do things incrementally when what is needed is a change of direction. The bureaucrats had a hand in crafting existing policies. They feel they need to defend them and can't change course. Take air pollution - policies need to put public health at the core, but Government officials are playing at the edges. In the meantime, Singapore's marketing campaign uses cleaner air to trump Hong Kong."
Winnie Lai, VP at Greater China Waggener Edstrom Worldwide:
"The Act Now campaign was a disaster. Or was it? From an execution point of view, it left a lot to be desired. However, this will probably not affect the result: getting the Government's political reform package passed.
Who was the chief executive's office trying to reach with this campaign? It was not an attempt to convert the diehard groups who oppose it - a minority that punches well above its weight in terms of generating publicity and media coverage. The Government was reaching out to that larger part of the population, who are the silent majority and the Act Now campaign did reach this audience.
The Government are inexperienced at political canvassing and were going up against politicians who are and they were not able to execute the campaign smoothly.
The only solution to improving one's public image when one lacks experience, is to seek and retain professional advice. The Government came out looking politically clumsy and traditional. If they can salvage anything, it will be the realisation that public relations is a major weak point and they need expert advice if they want to earn the long-term trust of the Hong Kong public."
This article was originally published in the 1 July 2010 issue of Media.