Putting a positive spin on PR spending

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 September, 1999, 12:00am

The Government is about to recruit a public relations firm to help boost its international image. Seven agencies, including two which helped Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's election campaign, are reported to have been shortlisted.

Some pundits have condemned the idea as a waste of taxpayers' money. The use of a professional service to help authorities shape public perceptions has always been controversial, although it is now the norm for governments.

Public relations is more than just cocktail receptions. Successful campaigns can have a crucial effect on the fate of a people or a nation. The Lithuanian National Council, for example, in the early 1900s offered American publicist Edward Bernays US$150 (HK$1,164 at today's rates) a week to plant press articles in support of the Baltic republic's claim to independence from Russia. The US Senate recognised Lithuania in 1919. Hailed as the 'father of spin', Bernays also advised India on how to befriend the US during the Korean War, for an annual retainer of US$35,000, plus US$175,000 in expenses.

Gary Haymel, a vice president of PR firm Hill and Knowlton, hired by the Kuwaiti royal family in exile to promote US Gulf War intervention against Iraq in 1991, brokered a Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing in which a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, testified as a 'hospital volunteer' that Iraqi soldiers had removed hundreds of premature babies from incubators and left them to die on cold floors. After the war it transpired the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, and had never witnessed the cruelty described.

Closer to home, Taipei is known to be a generous client for lobbyists in Washington DC.

Publicists should also be able to alert clients to what the public think and want. Hence campaigns are often a blend of opinion research, marketing, advertising, and public relations. The SAR Government is apparently not equipped with such a diversity of expertise in-house, particularly when its primary audience is across the Pacific.

Take the dilemma of how to attract American tourists. Hong Kong last July received 913,734 visitors. The American market, which is up 7.5 per cent on last year, falls below the average rebound rate of 9.7 per cent.

A recent national survey by the Pacific Research and Strategies Incorporation in Los Angeles offers more data to help the authorities here tackle the phenomenon. It shows 54 per cent of the 1,500 Americans polled said Hong Kong had preserved its pre-1997 qualities. Yet, 27 per cent believed the SAR was now just another Chinese city.

A closer look at the responses shows that seniors and women in middle income brackets harbour the most negative impressions of post-handover Hong Kong.

These findings could have considerable significance for the tourist industry, since retired couples represent a high proportion of Americans who travel, and women often decide for a family when it comes to travel for pleasure.

It is logical that Hong Kong's future promotion efforts be targeted at these two demographic groups.

Similar insight into the background behind a target audience is vital for plotting any PR plan of action.

The SAR's task is, of course, more than just luring more tourists this way. It has, for instance, become a matter of urgency to shed the image of an intellectual piracy haven, if the Government is to position Hong Kong as a regional hi-tech hub in the next century, as Mr Tung has pledged.

If officials feel they lack the ammunition for this propaganda war of words and images, it is better to turn to someone else's well-stocked arsenal rather than going to the trenches with empty gun barrels.



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