Social Media Crisis Communications Case Study – United Airlines Breaks Guitars

“Markets are Conversations.” 10 years after the Cluetrain manifesto, it is more true than ever. Take the following conversation. A person has an “experience” with a brand. This experience moves the person so much that they decide to create a YouTube video – not just a talking head one either. A fully produced song, telling the story of that experience. And within 12 days, that video has generated over 2.3 million views, exposing that brand and its story to the public. The story even made the LA Times, and AdAge.
Ok, now imagine the story is bad, and everyone who sees it thinks your company and its representatives (called out by name in the song) are idiots. Ok, stop imagining, and welcome to United Airlines’ waking nightmare – a Crisis Communications Case Study and a case for Social Media consultants to share with brand managers for years to come.
Dave Carroll, a musician, sees his $3500 guitar being THROWN by airline baggage handlers on a stopover in Chicago. He tries to alert airline personnel, but they don’t listen. He confirms the damage when he arrives at his destination but doesn’t file a formal complaint till his trip back one week later. (Because, hey, maybe he’s busy trying to make a living and you’ve just damaged the instrument he uses to make said living.)
After arguing with United for maybe a year, he makes said video (and threatens that it’s number one of three!)
Let’s look at the video now, shall we? It’s called, aptly enough “United Breaks Guitars”

Consumerist.com picks up the story about “United Breaks Guitars” the day after the video shows up on YouTube. So does the LA Times Daily Travel & Deal blog, which notes the video is “showing more than 24,000 views by Tuesday night.” Wow, now United is paying attention. (See the bottom 2 tweets first). United Airlines (UnitedAirlines) on Twitter

Then Dave says “Nope, I won’t take your money, how about you donate it to charity?” (As you can see above, they eventually did donate the money.) Meanwhile AdAdge publishes a piece called “United is Happy to Answer Your complaints After You Humiliate Them” in which author Ken Wheaton notes:

“Listen, this isn’t a problem unique to United Airlines. This happens with companies in every sector — which is why The Consumerist never has a shortage of blog fodder. You should be addressing consumer complaints the right way during the very first round. The folks in the plane should have done something. The first rep Carroll talked to should have done something. Hell, the company could have started by not hiring goons to handle the luggage in the first place.”

Now United is saying they’re going to use this video for training purposes, and hopefully will ‘change their tune.’
Meanwhile, remember that 24k number of video views on July 7th? Here it is, July 12th, and whoa, 2.3 million views on YouTube.
YouTube - United Breaks Guitars

Wow, you can’t buy publicity like that. Well, maybe you can, but its called Advertising, and most people tune it out.

So, as a Social Media Consultant, if United was my client, here’s what I’d tell them to do.
1. Don’t just tweet your apology. Make a YouTube Video as a response to Dave’s first video, and have your CEO (yes, your CEO) say he’s sorry about the treatment and the run around.
2. Have him commit to not only using this video as training material, but commit to firing anyone who gives customers a run-around like this. Give a number or email where he’ll take such complaints, and staff it, and respond to every one of the complaints. Guess what, that info will help write new policies. It could also make thousands of unhappy customers happy again. You could even use GetSatisfaction.com as the interface.
3. Promote the new “customer satisfaction” program – even make a TV commercial that excerpts the Dave Carroll video and tells how you’ve responded to it.
Notice I’ve done almost no social media consulting there. This is all organizational change consulting. (And, I’m not naive enough to think the above would be free – it will cost UA a bundle. So will negative publicity. (So would a DOT investigation, right? Like Delta’s recent $375K fine for bumping passengers. )

Of course, you actually have to have better customer service, and follow through. Or else, the market will realize this isn’t a conversation – it is the same-old-thing, and people will call you out on it.

Good Luck, United. I’m glad I don’t fly with a guitar.

UPDATE: Forgot to credit Frederic Guarino for pointing me to this.

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