Tim Bell must be spinning in his grave.
Eight global PR firms nixed the opportunity to craft a multi-million-dollar branding campaign for Hong Kong to help it overcome “negative perceptions” triggered by pro-democracy protesters, according to Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam.
She must be wondering, "Where's Bell Pottinger when you need it?"
Bell, who orchestrated the rise of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, lived by the credo that morality is for priests, not for PR men.
Bell Pottinger certainly ascribed to that philosophy by representing the likes of Chile strongman Augusto Pinochet, Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko and the repressive regime of Bahrain.
The Economist credited Bell with making London the global center for reputation laundering.
Hong Kong wasn’t always such an untouchable client.
Major PR firms tripped over each other in the race to handle the June 30, 1997 handover of the former British colony to the People’s Republic of China.
A year ahead of that transition, Ketchum scored a $600K two-year contract to push the “business as usual” theme in the aftermath of the handover.
Burson-Marsteller, Capitoline/MS&L and Rowland Co. then joined Ketchum in pitching the line that it would be suicidal for China to stifle freedom for Hong Kong, which than ranked as the world’s No. 8 trading economy.
Times have changed, but Hong Kong's message remains the same. Lam is looking for a PR firm to allay concerns about her city's "positioning as a global business and financial hub with a stable environment underpinned by the rule of law."
Hong Kong, though, isn’t as important to China these days as it was 22 years ago when the city served as its vehicle into the global financial markets.
Now the world’s No. 2 economy, China has been chipping away at the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers and the city's vibrant press.
In rejecting the Hong Kong account, PR firms are playing it safe. They avoid the nightmare scenario of China launching a Tiananmen Square-like smackdown of the city.
After all, those who live by the sword die by the sword.
Bell Pottinger imploded in 2017 after running a racist campaign in South Africa on behalf of the Gupta family.
Even Bell distanced himself from the Gupta disaster. “I had nothing to do with this account,” he told the BBC.