How NOT to Handle a Social Media Disaster - United Breaks Guitars

I wasn't going to write a post about the YouTube video by Canadian musician, Dave Carroll: United Breaks Guitars. It seemed that everything that could be said about this world wide rave has already been said. But I think the latest news angle on this story is in how United Airlines has failed to respond to this social media tidal wave.

For those of you who may not have heard about this viral phenomenon, Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, were traveling to Nebraska and had a stop over at Chicago O'Hare. While on the tarmac, they witnessed United ground crew throwing guitars on the ground. Carroll tried to bring the matter to the attention of three United employees who couldn't be bothered.

Later he discovered that his $3500 Taylor guitar was damaged, but when he tried to get United to pay for repairs, he was given the run around for nine months and then finally told that the airline would not compensate him for the damage. They did not even offer him the old standby of travel vouchers.

So Carroll wrote a song about his plight and posted a video on YouTube. Even though he posted on the day of Michael Jackson's memorial service, it has now received almost 3 million hits and tens of thousands of comments both favoring Carroll and rebuking United.

Clearly this has been a public relations disaster for United, but what I find particularly telling is how the company has failed to mitigate its black eye with a suitable social media response.

Many bloggers have written about the video and almost all of their posts have received dozens of comments. These comments represent the tip of the iceberg because many of these people have shared their own airline horror stories. This means that for every blog post and every news article about this story, there are many passengers who have faced the same sort of contempt from airlines.

Yet even though United has now been forcibly shown the power of ordinary people in the age of social media, it has to date only posted a single "tweet" on Twitter to address this nightmare.

One of the bedrock principles of public relations is that bad news must be responded to. If the response requires humility and contriteness, so be it. If it requires admissions of error, it is better to bite the bullet than to allow a vacuum.

The airline has not posted any mention of the video on its own website, nor has it responded by posting a humble, contrite video on YouTube. It has posted a paltry number of responses through traditional public relations channels, claiming "Mr. Carroll’s experience 'an anomaly, not the norm,'" but has not used Twitter (other than the single response mentioned earlier), no blog articles, no videos, no nothing.

There are several lessons to be learned from this situation:

  1. Every customer now has the power to embarrass a large company and bring it to its knees. Anyone with an internet connection can expose your dirty laundry.
  2. Customer service is more important than ever. Companies can no longer just give it lip service while at the same time failing to empower customer service reps to solve problems, or by shipping their jobs to India.
  3. Customer service reps still tend to be the lowest paid / most overworked employees in most organizations, even though they hold a company's future in their hands.
  4. Customer service reps' job performance are measured by things like the number of calls handled, and "talk time," which put pressure on them to get callers off the phone quickly, rather than to solve their problems.
  5. Top executives have not set up direct lines of communications so they can be attuned to what customer feedback comes into their companies. (I argue that every CEO should have a PERSONAL blog, and that blogging should be a Non-Delegateable duty).
  6. Fix problems quickly.
  7. More than ever, complaints are opportunities, not aggravations to be swept under the rug. The real test of a quality company is not that problems never happen, but that when they happen they get dealt with.

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COPYRIGHT © 2009, Charles Brown
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