With 14 million YouTube views and counting, Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” video is a hit song, but not in the traditional sense. In 2008, when United Airlines broke Carroll’s guitar, he decided to not just complain about it to the company, he decided to sing about it to the world.
Since Carroll did not receive an immediate, or even relatively immediate, apology from the company, it’s clear the airline was not prepared for a social media “crisis” situation. Below is an action plan outline of how I would have handled the situation if employed as a reputation manager at United Airlines.
1. Act Quickly!
When it comes to social media, there is nothing worse than a “silent” brand. Fans, followers, and users engage with brands because they expect a response, and a timely one at that. United Airlines could have saved itself a lot of bad PR if it had responded to Carroll’s complaint immediately. Instead, after a year-long battle with the company, simply for compensation for his broken guitar, Carroll took matters into his own hands. Customers are in charge, and don’t forget it! Whether an immediate post on social media, or one that comes a year later, customers will voice their opinions, and those opinions always have the chance of going viral.
After initially seeing Carroll’s video, United should have responded immediately. The brand could have done this in several ways, but publicly is the best bet. The brand could have commented on the initial YouTube post asking to speak to Carroll directly, while at the same time apologizing to him and letting him know they would like to resolve the issue.
2. Fess Up!
After the initial response, United should have been preparing a more public response. This could have been done in the form of a blog post or the brand’s own YouTube video. I believe the CEO or the lead customer service representative should be featured. This not only gives the brand a voice (and face), but a more personal “human” response to a negative situation. The response should come across as real and truthful. The brand needs to fess up to wronging a customer, and apologize for the delay in resolving the issue. Owning up to mistakes in such a public fashion can go a long way with regaining trust amongst customers. By remaining calm the brand can appear genuine and not hostile toward the customer.
3. Spread the GOOD Word!
After responding a public way, the brand should begin highlighting some of its attributes. This can, of course, come from content created by the brand, but in United’s case it may be good to feature positive customer experiences. I would create a series of web videos (again showing, not just telling customers what makes the brand a good one), which could show things, such as families being reunited via airplanes, a child taking its first flight, a profile piece on great employees (again highlighting good customer service), and maybe a fun behind-the-scenes look video on a piece of luggage’s journey from one location to the next. The last video topic idea could prove that United does take care of luggage (customer’s personal belongings) as it travels through its system, and maybe also inadvertently show people that Carroll’s experience was a unique one and not the norm.
4. Follow Up!
After a brand has completed the previous three steps, it’s time to consider a follow up. Don’t forget this step! Assuming the previous three steps have lead to a resolution, publicly let people know the status of the situation. United could once again post a comment on the Carroll’s YouTube video discussing the resolution, and maybe challenging Carroll to create another song about his more recent (and hopefully more positive) experience with the brand. United could also blog about the resolution and maybe include a quote from Carroll, again keeping the tone more personal than business-sounding. Or maybe if the brand is feeling really brave, it could wager an online campaign reaching out to more of their unsatisfied customers. This could be a form on the United website where people could post complaints or issues, and then the brand could respond (again publicly) showing others the resolution. This type of initiative would take lots of planning and resources, but again it would be a big way to show customers the brand recognizes it messed up and is willing to change.
While I believe my action plan could have helped United Airlines handle the Dave Carroll situation better, the bottom line is it took him over a year and an extreme measure to even elicit a response from the company (and even that took awhile!). It would be hard for any brand to change that type of situation from negative to positive. If anything, United sure has boosted itself into the social media world of “what not to do!” I’m sure a lot of other brands have used this as an example for developing strategies on how to handle unsatisfied customers on social media. The goal for any business should be to listen to their customers and respond quickly. Not doing either can lead to very bad reputation, online and otherwise.