The extent to which United Airlines’ brand is damaged in China following the forced removal of a passenger—or "deplaned," in aviation speak—of Vietnamese descent from a U.S. flight is significant—far worse than a normal flare-up over a tone-deaf communications response.
In fact, the Chinese are comparing the event to the Black Lives Matter activist movement and clamoring for social justice. The airline, which derives an estimated U.S. $2 billion in annual revenue from China, has gotten it wrong on many levels, said Shanghai AtComm Consulting President and Partner Shirley King. From the matter of respect for an elderly human, to the quality of passenger service, to the issue of perceived racial discrimination (regardless of whether the victim, David Dao, is of Vietnamese or previously believed Chinese descent), and assent to police brutality, the brand has only earned itself a negative image with a "capital N," she said, in an exchange in Chinese with this reporter.
"No doubt, the United communications team is busy right now, judging by the amount of revised statements and apologies," commented Alec Peck, Hill+Knowlton Strategies' APAC crisis and issues lead. "To date, there does not seem to be one that directly addresses the race issue, and as a result, we are already seeing further condemnations, threats, and accusations."
The bookings for routes between China and the United States and United’s China market share will certainly decline, said King. Before this saga, United had already suffered from a negative word-of-mouth effect from at least five PR failures—from #LeggingsGate in March to the "United Breaks Guitars" musical protest in 2008.
However this time, United "completely destroyed its brand image," added King. "It is difficult to recover in the short term."
As of noon China Standard Time, there were more than 160,000 signatories to a petition, launched by a Chinese student living in London only one day ago, calling on the U.S. federal government to launch an investigation into the incident, invoking the Black Lives Matter movement with the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatters.
On Weibo, China' almost-no-holds-barred social commentary platform, the United incident was the top-ranked trending topic, with nearly 700 million views of 280,000 ferociously worded comments and counting. Some netizens cut up their United Mileage Plus Explorer cards in anger over United CEO Oscar Munoz's "patronizing" public responses.
"That this developed into a social media storm in the West and China, almost independently of each other, should be a lesson to many companies," added Peck. Social media is a global phenomenon, and brands need to make sure their crisis responses are similarly internationalized and tailored to differing concerns, he said. Munoz’s use of the term "re-accommodate" as well as a measly half-apology were two of many triggers.
Legalese: Not the way to go
Lawyers can have a stronger voice than PR advisers in such cases, pointed out Jeffrey Broer, co-director of Founder Institute Hong Kong.
"In my humble opinion, any PR salvages need to take into account legalities that equate to admission of guilt and increase the risk of paying potential damages," Broer said. This factor can outweigh "weaker" arguments about managing public sentiment.
Another way United has harmed itself is that its PR message to the outside world—"an upsetting event" and "we're going to fix what's broken"—was different from the message internally—"disruptive" and "belligerent."
Broer said Munoz was probably weighing his communication options with legal counsel rather than PR executives.
"As a CEO, I want to be presented with options and choose, and then you try to rationalize a decision. That's what management is about,’ he said. "Don't forget, CEOs are usually not on social media so all the options they get are within their own corporate bubbles, a little like the information bubble voters live in."
In the end, the bottom line will be proof of the degree of the brand's damage in China, one of its key markets.
Top Chinese corporate executives are said to be rallying their circles to make a stand financially, such as Wilson Yao, CEO of Allyes.
"The best lesson for them is if the Chinese buy up all of United’s stock," Yao said.
This story first appeared on campaignasia.com.