BTN Special Report: how United paid the price for breaking a guitar

14th Aug 2009
BTN Special Report: how United paid the price for breaking a guitar

Social media means that brands no longer control what consumers say about them. The most powerful travel example yet was the musician who created a YouTube hit about United breaking his prized guitar. Adam Coulter examines the ensuing PR disaster and what companies can learn in order to stay on the right side of the consumer.

Go onto the United Airlines website and type in “United Breaks Guitars” into search and you won’t find a match.

Instead there are a few suggestions (United breaks guides? United breaks stars? And my personal favourite United breaks guests?).

To me, that says everything you need to know about how the airline has managed possibly the worst non-accident related PR disaster in its existence.

For readers who don’t know the story: Canadian singer-songwriter Dave Carroll had his $3,500 guitar broken on a flight with the airline. He tried for a year in vain to get compensation, then finally, exasperated, he wrote a song about his experiences, posted it on YouTube and it went viral (almost five million views to date). United backed down two days later and offered to pay.


As John Dodge, social media commentator, says on his SmartPlanet blog:
“United breaks guitars” is the most powerful example yet about how social media empowers consumers and tarnishes images of big companies.

“Now, United has a PR nightmare of its own making and Dave Carroll is a rock star.”

I would argue that the airline here was presented with a prime opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the public (who, incidentally, have almost universally vilified it) and perhaps turn this sorry tale into a PR success.

So what exactly has it done?

Well, apart from making the gesture to pay up for the damage (way too late as Carroll says on his response), it has described the video as a “unique learning opportunity,” and has pledged to use it in internal training. Um, that’s it.

But think of what it could have done… some bright spark in the marketing department might have said:

“Hey guys, look at all the negative publicity we’ve generated from this sorry fiasco – why don’t we try and turn it to our advantage?”

So for example, the airline could have countered humour with humour and taken a leaf out of Dave Carroll’s book, harnessed the self-evident power of social media, and put together a song apologising for the whole thing – and watch that go viral.

Or, it could have turned Mrs Erlwig (the customer services assistant mentioned in the song) into a YouTube star.

Or it could have launched a special offer for musicians or people carrying guitars and put a banner on its website highlighting the fact.

Or at the very least it should recognise the issue on its website.

Instead it reverted to the traditional fortress of huge, bloated out-of-touch companies and carried on as if it was business as usual, ignoring the customer.

Well before social media this is exactly what they could have done – and usually got away with it (interesting fact: this is not the first time a disgruntled passenger has written a song about airlines breaking guitars, but this was before YouTube).

But it’s not business as usual.

As UBM’s digital director John Welsh says: “Social media means that brands no longer control the conversation about their product.

“Instead they can only monitor what is said through sites such as Twitter Search or Addictomatic and try and influence the debate.”

What Carroll has done is tapped is a wellspring of resentment towards the airline (and to be fair, it’s not just United, they’ve just got caught in the firing line: it is corporates in general).

And what is staggering is that out of more than 14,000 comments posted online hardly a single one is in support of the airline.

Of the ones fit to print, here is a sample: “United is one of these companies where employee management relationships permanently deteriorated years ago.”

“All United needed to do was to get their people to be careful with luggage and treat people with respect.”

“Social media is a powerful tool to bend the backs of high-headed organizations and their malpractices.”

It is indeed. How many times have you or I been faced with appalling customer service and said nothing, or perhaps said something but been met with equal indifference by a manager.

Too numerous to count I warrant.

As the Visible Measures blog states:

“Unless customer service starts getting better quickly, we can be sure to see more creative responses to similar frustrations.”

So the lesson learned for social media - as with any media new or old - is to look after the customer, and publicity will look after itself. In the meantime, Dave Carroll will be releasing two more videos on the experience, the next one about Mrs Erlwig. Can’t wait!


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