Property tycoons' club pays to find out what we think of them

HONG KONG: It's a club whose members include many of the city's richest people - men like Stanley Ho Hung-sun, Li Ka-shing, Cheng Yu-tung, Lee Shau-kee and Gordon Wu Ying-sheung.

And they want to know what you really think of them.

Rocked by recent controversies, Hong Kong's real estate developers are looking for ways to clean up their image. So the Real Estate Developers Association (REDA) hired international public relations firm Ogilvy to do a wide-ranging "public perception audit".

More than 60 industry groups, government departments, Legislative Council members, non-governmental groups and members of the property-buying public are being approached to take part in the poll which will take place later this year.

The initial survey, the cost of which is under wraps, will take the form of face-to-face interviews. Later, a research group will talk to between 300 and 500 potential homebuyers.

A letter from Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to would-be participants, a copy of which the Sunday Morning Post has seen, says: "This study is aimed at providing REDA the necessary information so that, with your input, REDA may map out a strategy to meet the challenges from the community at large when it comes to providing advice, guidelines and transparent communication on issues surrounding the highly important property sector.

"Your expert input in this survey would be a very important element in helping REDA shape its future direction for the betterment of Hong Kong as a whole."

The move comes amid growing pressure on the developers to clean up their act and offer more transparency in their dealings after a series of controversies and public disquiet.

Pressure has mounted since April, when Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced measures to make the property market more transparent. Developers now have to issue a price list and sales brochure at least three days before flats are sold.

Then, in the wake of the scandal over the collapse of flat sales in Henderson Land's Conduit Road development, further rules were introduced requiring developers to announce the expected date of completion of flat sales and to specify transactions that have collapsed.

Michael Dunn, director of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (Hong Kong), is leading a team of four who will carry out the "perception audit".

He says it aims to map out a new communications strategy for the association, something it certainly needs. Founded by late tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung under the Societies Ordinance in 1965 and with more than 500 individual and 300 corporate members, it has no website and offers little in the way of public information about the way it operates.

Several requests for comment on this report made to association secretary general Louis Loong Hon-biu and vice-chairman Stewart Leung Chi-kin, who is also an executive director of New World China Land, went unanswered.

"The object of the audit is to gauge opinion and provide a barometer of opinion. We want to build an effective communications programme for REDA," Dunn said. "There are mixed messages out there.

"Yes, there are people who are opponents of the real estate sector but there are voices out there — for instance some industry associations — which are supportive. This step is a positive move, there need not be any controversy or negativity about it."

Asked about concerns that developers were aloof, opaque and uncommunicative in their dealings with the public, Dunn said: "It is never to late and never too soon to make the right move."

He said it was not appropriate to release the list of specific organisations or individuals they would survey as they had "pretty much promised complete confidentiality to the people that we talk to which also means we don't report their individual comments back to REDA".

Twenty-three of the people Ogilvy have approached so far have agreed to take part in the survey; six have not.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said the survey was yet more proof that the developers had a serious image problem.

"When you put this together with [property tycoon] Henry Cheng Kar-shun's reported attempt to buy a newspaper [the Hong Kong Daily News], and noises they are making about 'giving back' to society, it is obvious that the developers know they have a real problem. They now want to use every avenue available to them to spin the story their way," To said. — South China Morning Post
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