Broken guitar + YouTube = PR crisis for United Airlines - Dooley Communications

A video showed up on YouTube this week that’s a prime example of how one unhappy customer can create a commotion like never before. United Breaks Guitars illustrates how important it is for companies to realize new media is giving average customers very powerful voices.

As the story goes Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, were on a flight from Halifax to Nebraska. During the connection in Chicago the band watched through the plane’s windows as luggage handlers threw around his guitar case containing his $3,500 Taylor guitar. Once he arrived in Omaha and claimed his luggage he was not surprised to find his guitar broken – so began his nine month fight with the airline for compensation.

After it was explained in no uncertain terms there was nothing UA could do, Dave Carroll made the last person he talked to at the airline a promise. He said he would write and produce three songs about his experience with UA and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world. His goal is to reach 1 million views within the first year. This is the first installation in the trilogy and has already been viewed almost 500,000 times in the first 48 hours. These views are followed by almost 5,000 comments describing bad experiences with UA and other short messages of support to continue the good fight.

We have all been in this position – we are unhappy with the way we are being treated but feel helpless. Even if we do boycott the giant company in question our few dollars don’t impact its bottom line, therefore they don’t seem to care. But with the advent of new media websites designed to disseminate user-generated content to the masses quickly and freely it is now possible for any unhappy customer to cause a stir forcing a company to pay attention.

As a PR consultant and a consumer, I understand both sides of the story. As much as I am glad individuals have a tool like YouTube to tell their stories, I feel for companies that are unprepared to deal with this new form of unhappy consumers. Companies need to realize that the days of ignoring a complaint because it is just one person is over, those late in realizing this are more likely to become victims of crusades like the one Carroll is on.

The phenomenon is called a swarm and it is a  scary prospect for many companies who fear they’ll fall victim to this sort of attack. But on the other side of great adversity there is also great opportunity. The rule of thumb is to engage your complaining customers urgently, sincerely and in the medium they’re using. Apologize for transgressions if there are any and make amends quickly and professionally. If the complaint demands a new way of business for you and your industry, and if it makes sense, why not consider becoming an industry leader? Be the first to tackle the issue. For UA, can the company forge a better policy to deal with damaged luggage? By responding in the appropriate manner to Carroll’s complaint UA may even be able to win over the many other dissatisfied customers who have logged comments in support of the anti-UA effort.

As media changes and evolves, the rules of PR change as well. Companies need to know what is happening with their brands at all times. Just as the assaults are getting more imaginative the responses must be as equally as inspired to win over a very fickle public that loves to see someone sticking it to the man.

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