Cathay Pacific Reverses Position on Hong Kong Protests

One of the hottest and most divisive news stories coming out of the far east this past week was the ongoing “pro-democracy demonstrations” in Hong Kong. Waves and waves of people, mostly students, are out in the streets letting the Chinese government know what they think of the current state of things. 

Initially, renowned airline, Cathay Pacific, put out an internal message that the company would not stop its employees from taking part in the demonstration. That has changed, and the company was quick to let the world know it. Employees were told that, if they participated in the protests, their employment would be terminated.

So, what caused this reversal? The easy answer is the twin hammers of political and financial pressure from the massive economic power of China. But that’s just the headline. There’s a lot more to this story.

First, the company surely understands it will be absolutely blasted on social media for this shift in position. It may also take some bruises in the traditional press, not because of the announcement, necessarily, but because of the abrupt reversal, as well as the obvious cause for that reversal.

While Hong Kong residents tend to love Cathay, the company has far too much at stake in the Chinese market to risk alienating that country as a client. They may want to allow their employees to speak their minds on their own time, and they may even support the protests in private. However, there’s too much to lose and too steep a price for the company to pay. 

A very short time after the announcement to allow employees to protest was made, China’s state-run media organized a “BoycottCathayPacific” campaign online and on social media, quickly generating millions of interactions.

On the heels of that campaign, Cathay blinked, issuing a clear, strongly-worded threat to any employees who choose to join the protest. Blinking when publicly challenged may not be the image the company wishes to portray, but they cannot afford to lose control of their message in the Chinese market.

The lesson here for Cathay – and other companies facing similar situations – is to count the cost of politically-charged communication before allowing it. Allowing employees to protest may have been seen as independent of the company, but the opposition in this case simply held too much power over the fate of the airline and its business, forcing the company’s decision to restrict employee protest. In the end, the reversal hurt the company, but less than the long-term boycott would have.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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