Social Media PR Disasters: “United Breaks Guitars”

Social media has given brands unprecedented access to its customers, but we may forget that the customers also have access to those same communication tools and are able to broadcast their messages to the world.

Sometimes those messages are critical of a company. How do brands respond? Over the next few months, I’ll look at the way brands have missed, or exploited, opportunities for good publicity. This week, what happens when a little-known musician takes on a major airline?

The Brand
United Airlines

The Incident
In 2008, on a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the Sons of Maxwell, a rock group led by David Carroll, witnessed baggage handlers throwing their guitars on the tarmac. When Carroll arrived at his destination, he found that his $3,5000 Taylor guitar had been broken. Carroll pursued compensation from United for nine months, but the company never took responsibility and ultimately denied his claim.

The Problem
Carroll wrote a song about the incident and posted the music video on YouTube. After three days, it had received over 500,000 views. (It currently has over 10 million). The song became a hit on iTunes as well. Carroll promised that two more songs about United’s poor customer service were on the way.

The Response
After just 18 hours, United began offering apologies through Twitter. However, the airline’s Facebook Page made no mention of the incident, and the Page’s press release tab, an obvious platform for communicating the company’s official response, provided no additional information. The United Airlines YouTube channel quickly filled up with negative comments, which the airline neither replied to nor removed. Eventually, the airline made amends by donating $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute (at Carroll’s request), but that action didn’t indicate an improvement in baggage handling or a change of policies.

The Result
Carroll’s second song, a faux love ballad for a United customer service rep, was less successful but still a modest hit. His third song, in which Carroll describes being contact by other passengers who had had poor experiences with United, was more conciliatory. Carroll eventually began giving speeches on customer service to corporations around the country. He even flew United again – though on a flight to Denver to give a presentation, the airline lost his luggage. And Social Media Today, following an analysis of the story, concluded that “United Airlines did follow the first rule of crisis communications by apologizing and trying to make amends.  It’s their failure to leverage and integrate their online channels that is at issue.”

The Takeaway
So what are the lessons from “United Breaks Guitars”?

Drive people to your own turf. United had the platforms to control the flow of information, but neglected its own Facebook Page and YouTube channel, letting critics take over.

Respond immediately. How many views must a critical video get before a company responds? Carroll’s song became popular so quickly that many companies would have struggled to keep up. But United had at least some of response before two days had passed.

If necessary, make the change: Look at how Delta changed its baggage policy for military personnel after an Army reservist posted a video about having to pay a fee to check a fourth bag on a flight home from Afghanistan. Other airlines quickly eliminated their own fee. The entire story took only a few days to be resolved.

As “United Breaks Guitars” shows, while great customer service rarely stays with us, bad customer service drives people to vent their frustrations online. Some of the most vicious – and popular – content on the internet involves consumers taking their revenge against brands that have wronged them. But brands can swing public opinion back in their favor by acting with speed, grace, and humility.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s