Earlier this year, the hotel chain, Marriott International, made the mistake of sending out a questionnaire to rewards program members asking for their country of residence and listing Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Taiwan as country options. Although this may seem like a fairly innocuous and easily corrected error, it has had significant repercussions for the Marriott’s China operations. As briefly explained in the videos below, although visas, governments, currencies, and local authorities are all separate for these regions, China considers these regions to be part of “One China.” To state otherwise is considered to be an undermining of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This oversight on Marriot’s survey received a positive Twitter comment from Friends of Tibet, a pro-Tibetan independence group, thanking the hotel for listing Tibet as a country rather than part of China. Compounding the problem, Roy Jones, an American Marriott customer care manager logged onto the official Marriot Twitter account and “accidentally” clicked “like” on the tweet. Mr. Jones was in charge of handling complaints, reward-point questions, and questions directed to Marriott’s Twitter account. When later interviewed, he stated that it had been an accident and that he had not received any training about China-related issues (2).
The entire situation led to the shutdown of both the Marriott and Starwood websites and app in China for one week, disrupting operations for its more than 120 locations in China. Additionally, Chinese authorities have stated that “Marriott’s wording violated cybersecurity and advertising laws (7).” China’s tourism ministry immediately ordered an investigation and warned the industry that all “hotel companies must immediately review all information on their corporate websites and apps, and strictly abide by Chinese laws and regulations.” China’s cyber regulator demanded meetings with two regional executives from the Marriott hotel chain and order a “comprehensive self-review and rectification (7).”
Marriott responded quickly to the incident by apologizing for the error, denouncing its employee’s actions, and announcing an eight-point rectification plan. Mr. Jones and the third party vendor from Canada that was contracted to create the survey have both been let go by Marriott International. The eight-point rectification plan includes “expanding employee education globally, improving mechanisms to approve content, creating a more convenient complaints channel for Chinese customers, studying Chinese regulations better, and more strictly supervising the work of third-party contractors (1).”
The actions listed in Marriott’s rectification plan are being implemented reactively to address this marketing and public relations crisis. However, these can also be utilized by any business as a proactive action plan to prevent an incident like this from occurring in the first place. Two notable actions mentioned in this plan are expanding the global education of employees of the company and studying Chinese regulations better. These are connected to ensuring employees have an understanding of the external environment in the countries a company is connected to throughout the world. The external environment which includes the sociocultural, legal, and political environments that were the key areas related to this particular PR crisis that agents of the company were uninformed about. This particular case illustrates the importance of having a company-wide understanding of the external environments of other countries especially in an age when technology allows all agents of the company to communicate globally.