How one “like” on Twitter upset Marriott’s business in China

Aka why geopolitics matter

(Credit from back: mkhmarketing/Flickr, Pixabay)
(Credit from back: mkhmarketing/Flickr, Pixabay)

Doing business in China requires knowing the country’s politics and geography as Marriott International learned the hard way.

The incident, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, occurred in early January when Marriott emailed its rewards-program members a survey which asked them to select their country from a list which included Tibet, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan — the first three of which are part of China and the latter, Taiwan, is claimed by Beijing. The insinuation that any of the territories’ independence amounts to “subversion of national sovereignty” under China’s new cybersecurity law which empowers authorities to monitor and respond to offending online content.

“What companies are up against is what we understand to be a legion of young, talented online technicians that scour the internet for compliance issues,” said lawyer and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China James Zimmerman to the Journal. Marriott’s problematic survey is one such example of the thousands Chinese regulators have flagged since last fall.

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But the hotel chain’s issue didn’t end there: the survey sparked a flurry of tweets to boycott Marriott and, amid the storm, a Tibetan separatist group tweeted a “thank you” to the hotel chain for supporting their case for sovereignty and Marriott’s rewards-program Twitter account liked the tweet.

In response, Chinese authorities brought hotel representatives in for questioning and, for one week, the hotel chain had to stop taking online bookings for its 300 hotels in Greater China — Marriott’s largest overseas market. (The hotel chain also fired the social media manager who liked the tweet and terminated their contract with the vendor who prepared the survey.)

The head of the hotel’s Asia-Pacific division, Craig Smith, issued a statement in response to the Journal: “We made a few mistakes in China earlier this year that suggested some associates did not understand or take seriously enough the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Those incidents were mistakes and in no way representative of our views as a company.”

According to the Journal, Delta Air Lines, Zara and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz have similarly run awry of Beijing in online marketing efforts. [WSJ]Erin Hudson