3 Lessons from “United Breaks Guitars”

Oops! United Airlines Angers the Wrong Passenger

Oops! United Airlines angers the wrong passenger.

The YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars” is example of why corporations continue to fear social media.  But what it should really do is get them to stop fearing it – and start participating in it.  It’s no longer an option to sit on the sidelines.

Here’s the United Airlines story in a nutshell:

David Carroll, a singer and songwriter from Canada, was traveling with his band when they witnessed United Airlines’ ground crew tossing around his equipment.  Carroll’s expensive Taylor guitar was damaged to the tune of $1,200.  After more than a year of bickering, United refused to pay for Carroll’s broken guitar.  So Carroll and his band Sons of Maxwell wrote a song and shot a video called “United Breaks Guitars.”

The video was posted on YouTube and has more than 2.4 million views.  But even worse, the traditional media has jumped on the story (more than 500 stories in places like the New York Times, ABC-News, CNN, Reuters, Dallas Morning News, etc.).  Carroll has even been a guest on the CBS Early Show.  Carroll – now the next pie-in-the-sky Internet celebrity – has promised to make two more videos about the airline.

Social media channels – from Twitter to YouTube (the video has garnered more than 11,500 comments) – have been buzzing with the story.

A United Airlines spokesperson informed the Los Angeles Times last week: “His video is excellent and we plan to use it internally as a unique learning and training opportunity to ensure that all our customers receive better service.”  The airline also agreed to donate $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz for music education for kids, according to the Toronto Star.

But the United brand is definitely suffering a hit.  The traditional media, of course, have taken the easy narrative: Hipster musician gets his sweet revenge on the big, bad corporate behemoth.  And really don’t we all love stories like this, especially when they’re about airlines?  Who among us doesn’t have an airline nightmare story that we dust off for cocktail parties?

But that story is too easy.  United Airlines has been around since 1927.  The company has 385 airplanes, 56,000 employees and safely delivers more than 63 million people each year to destinations around the world.  You try accomplishing that without damaging any luggage.  There is no way to service so many millions of people and their things without leaving behind a few disgruntled ones.  Even the most highly rated and costly resorts, restaurants and spas screw up on occasion.  That’s the nature of any business.

In the age of instant and easy web communications when anyone with a Flip camera, iPhone or Internet connection can become an international publisher, corporations are beginning to realize the incredible power of the Social Web (let’s not forget that there are also incredible advantages – but that’s a conversation for another time).  So what can companies learn from the United Airlines flap?

Here are three things:

1. You’ll Be Next

That’s right.  Every company – no matter how small or large – is going to experience a social media crisis of some sort.  Customers are learning quickly that the best way to get attention (or a refund or extra special service) is to complain about a company on a social media channel – be it on YouTube, Twitter, Yelp or Facebook.  To be prepared every corporation should be monitoring the web every day (blogs, forums, social networks, online publications, etc.).  Knowing what people are saying early is the first step in dealing with it successfully.

2. Have a Plan

My agency Weber Shandwick, for example, has a Digital Defense program that helps corporations specifically plan for a web crisis.  Being prepared for any crisis is just a sound communications best practice, but now it is important to integrate those plans with an understanding of how to deal with crises that are erupting on the Social Web.  Crises move quickly – and Web crises move even faster than quickly – so having a plan at the ready is crucial.

3. You Are No Longer in Control

You can’t stop a viral explosion.  They happen – from Susan Boyle‘s rocket to stardom to Domino’s Pizza’s viral video.  Expect more of them.  But the good news is that if your company has an established social media presence (you do already right?) then you’ll be in a position to deal with it.  These days companies aren’t judged so much for the initial explosion – but in their reaction to it.  Domino’s Pizza, for example, reacted slowly at first when two employees posted an inflammatory video on YouTube.  But then the company did all the right things: responded with its own video, condemned the actions of its rogue employees, engaged with the community – and above all apologized.  The company was dignified, respectful, honest and took action.  That helped to quell the surge – and now – a few months later – they have recovered quite nicely.

Don’t use the United situation to avoid social media.  This is the wrong reaction.  The time to engage is now.  Start listening and monitoring.  Figure out a strategic approach to social media (what will work for your company and can be integrated into existing programs) and then execute.  And make sure you have a crisis plan that includes social media.  Don’t wait until it is too late.

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