The online video of a man being dragged off a United flight this week is a PR crisis of global proportions. After the topic spread like wildfire across Chinese social media, L2 took a closer look at the extent of the damage in one of the airline’s most important markets for growth.
The topic became the most-discussed in a 24-hour period on Chinese social platform Weibo yesterday under the hashtag “United Airlines forces passenger off plane” (#美联航强制乘客下机#) after Chinese-language media picked up on reports that the distraught and bloodied doctor shown in the video had claimed he was chosen because he was Chinese. As of Wednesday morning U.S. time, the hashtag was at 800 million views on Weibo and remained in the top 10 most-discussed topics.
Data from China’s top social and search platforms shows just how big the fallout has been from this disaster. Driven by Chinese news reports, online comments by celebrities, and general outrage at the situation, searches and discussion of the issue have skyrocketed in China across platforms as the Baidu Index, WeChat Index, and Weibo Index for the term “United Airlines” have all seen staggering growth.
The WeChat Index for United Airlines, which is calculated based on searches, keyword mentions in public articles, and reposts of articles on China’s most popular mobile messaging app, surged by 238,713 percent between April 10 and 11 to over 35.6 million—and that doesn’t even take into account private posts by individuals ranting on their Moments newsfeed without reposting an article. Meanwhile, Weibo mentions of the brand name grew by 23,393 percent to over 520,000.
United Airlines has a significant amount of business at stake with the global spread of this crisis as China is a crucial growth market for the company. With the number of international Chinese travelers rising annually, United received 14% of its total 2016 revenue from Pacific routes. It operates more China flights than any other U.S. airliner, accounting for 20% of all flights between the United States and China. The incident also sparked outrage on Vietnam’s social media after reports confirmed that the man dragged off the flight is a Vietnamese citizen.
After the United’s initial response apologizing for “re-accommodating” the passenger sparked even more of a fury on social media, L2 Founder and Chairman Scott Galloway told Bloomberg that it was “the most tone-deaf response” to an issue like this “possibly ever,” stating that “heads should roll over this” among United’s leadership. Today, the CEO sent another apology calling the response “truly horrific” and saying he offered his “deepest apologies.” Amidst calls on Chinese social media to boycott the company, Chinese travelers will determine with their wallets on whether or not United performs enough damage control.