A promotional disaster, a public relations crisis and a lesson learned

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Martin Moodie

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If anyone had any doubts over the tremendous influence and impact that social media can have (and what a double-edged sword it can be), they should be erased by what has happened to World Duty Free at Heathrow Airport over the past 48 hours.

As we reported, the retailer faces a furious Chinese backlash after news of a seemingly discriminatory store promotion went viral on social media.

Weibo user @Renjiannaipao, apparently a salesman at the World Duty Free shop, included details and pictures of the anomaly on his blog. Users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo were outraged after the policy, widely dubbed as “racist”, was revealed on the post. As of last night, the revelations were shared over 75,000 times on Weibo and exceeded 100,000 WeChat views.

This was a public relations crisis in the making. One of World Duty Free’s highest-spending customer groups seemingly being taken advantage of. Accusations of racism, discrimination and profiteering flying. What to do?

Alas, the retailer’s first response caused just as big a furore as the initial incident. “We are grateful for the comments shared on social media today regarding our VIP voucher scheme,” the company said on Facebook and Weibo. “We have investigated this straight away and have identified an issue which we have corrected with immediate effect. The program applies regardless of the destination customers are flying to. Customer satisfaction remains our highest priority.”

That might not have been a case of too late, but it certainly was a case of too little.

Huge numbers of outraged Chinese consumers immediately took to social media to declare their anger not only at the allegedly racist and discriminatory promotion but at World Duty Free’s failure to apologise. World Duty Free’s Facebook page is today crammed with over 300 damning ‘reviews’ about what happened. Of 363 one-star (the worst) to five-star (the best) reviews, 345 give a damning one (with several reviewers saying they would give zero if they could). Accused of deleting early reviews, the retailer now finds itself in the invidious position of having to leave them in place – not exactly the role it saw social media playing. Expect a Facebook relaunch once the fuss dies down.

Last night, to its credit, World Duty Free issued a fulsome apology. “As a global company we are committed to treating all our customers with respect and in a consistent and fair way,” it said. “We would like to offer our sincere apologies to our customers who were in any way made to feel this was not the case.”

The apology was correct but the matter is far from resolved. The palpable anger of most of the Facebook messages could be just the tip of the iceberg. Chinese state media and social media are all over the story today, so are international media.


It’s not just World Duty Free that has been hurt by the fall-out. Heathrow Airport (LHR), despite having nothing to do with the promotion and having issued a prompt apology when it discovered what had happened, finds itself right in the firing line. Here’s Enoch Xie’s viewpoint on Facebook. “This is discrimination and should not be tolerated in any means. We should support by boycotting the purchase of any products from LHR unless LHR provides a proper resolution. I will personally not buy anything from Heathrow anymore and I will not choose LHR as a transfer point.”

Besides the ethical issues, one must question the common sense of the promotion in the first place. As Victor Lee, a Singaporean Chinese, wrote on World Duty Free’s Facebook page, “Very sad to hear about this discrimination. Besides this abhorrent racial-based practice, it is also a most foolish thing to do especially to customers who like to shop.”

The World Duty Free public affairs and communications team have been scrambling desperately to undo or at least minimise the damage from a promotion they wouldn’t even have known about. The problem is that the company’s apology will attract far less attention than the original incident and the tepid first public relations defence. The company can do little more now than to hope it all just blows over. On the eve of Chinese New Year, one of the biggest trading periods in the calendar, the timing could not be any worse.

There are urgent and harsh lessons here. A prime rule of public relations is that if you screw up, apologise quickly. But it goes beyond that. Chinese consumers are pivotal to the future fortunes of the travel retail industry. They must be treated with respect and dignity at all times, just like any other nationality. As Xian-born, Vancouver-based Yiping Wang wrote, “It’s not because that we Chinese have much bigger purchasing power that we should be treated this way!”

The Chinese authorities are already doing all they can to encourage international travellers to spend inside China (arrivals shops, post-arrivals shops, offshore duty free stores). The last thing the international duty free industry can afford is to add further encouragement to Chinese consumers to not shop abroad.


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  • Much as you have honestly and clinically dealt with (yet another) PR disaster coming out of UK Airport Retail, in this case a Duty Free promotion, the core issue is missing. Which is, how is it possible that Heathrow and their major Travel Retailer, could even consider such a prejudicial scheme?

    Forgetting how numerous Departments failed to spot this error, or perhaps ignored it. What it demonstrates is a mindset that “the Consumer is there to be ripped-off” and such a condition was inconsequential. This is a concept that has not been addressed for years and will eventually create the death-knell for Duty Free Shopping. Certainly in The UK, especially when they try to bring back real Duty Free, but without dropping prices! UK Travel Retail is becoming the master of their own downfall.