Social Media Re-Defines PR

Are Companies listening to their Consumers?

Carroll Dave vs. United Airline

united2I flew United Airlines on my way to Nebraska…
The plane departed, Halifax, connecting in Chicago’s “O’Hare”…
While on the ground, a passenger said from the seat behind me,
“My God, they’re throwing guitars out there”…
You broke it, you should fix it…
You’re liable, just admit it…
I should’ve flown with someone else…
Or gone by car!

Cause United Breaks Guitars..

Many of us have seen or heard Dave Carroll YouTube video did and how United Airlines’ baggage handlers mangled his guitar. This is perhaps the most well crafted consumer complaint I have ever come across. Dave Carroll, the musician who took his terrible experience with united airlines to YouTube, has changed the rules of engagement for organizations and customer service protocol from now on. While companies pay lot of attention to their external image with extensive use of PR, advertising, events; most have not graduated to the social media curve.

UnitedAirlines One bad experience, one video on a platform like you tube, a couple of blog posts and the entire reputation of the corporate was at stake! Brands are a result of consumer perception! People make brands…its not the other way round.The Dave Carroll incident once again demonstrates the power of authenticity, creativity and compelling content to grab attention and send PR executives reeling. Dave Carroll’s video undermines United Airlines’ reputation and hurts its brand. Numerous traditional media outlets covered the story (LA Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune), but it was YouTube, Twitter and blogs that fueled the flame.

It’s a great story of how a little guy took on the indifferent corporate giant, this is what happened:It happened last spring, when Carroll was traveling with the band to Nebraska for a one-week tour. A woman sitting in the plane near Carroll watched as United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago threw his Taylor guitar, which had a $3,500 value before it got chucked. His bass player’s guitar was also thrown, but Carroll soon discovered his was severely damaged.

The capping blow, Carroll says, was an e-mail from a Ms. Irlweg, who denied his claim for compensation because he didn’t complain in the right place, or at the right time. So he vowed a sort of musical revenge – not one protest song, not two, but three, with a video for each, all to be posted on the Web. The video was posted on July 6. In its first 23 hours, “United Breaks Guitars” had drawn 461 comments on YouTube, most of them maligning the airline.

Thousands of tweets, whopping numbers of comments on Facebook etc demonstrates the power of Twitter and YouTube, turning an obscure musician into a video star and corporate headache in less than a week.


The Internet became for United Airlines an open platform for critics, and United Airlines could not or did not want to keep up with public reaction. Their traditional news channel remains silent.  Their YouTube Channel has become a platform for snaky, negative comments with no reaction from United Airlines. These entire sites an example of individuals are using social media to serve their own needs and to confront bad service when it rears its ugly head. It is no longer acceptable for corporate PR to ignore social brand monitoring; it is a vital part of building and protecting brand reputation.

It has only been a week and the Youtube Video has accumulated over 3 million views already.

This is a prime example of why companies must really pay more attention to social media today. Not only is social media an important tool for businesses to interact with their audience, it’s also a crucial tool for timely damage control when it comes to crisis management. Had United been active in social media or even responded in time, they could probably have stopped the bleeding maybe by shedding some light on their side of the story. Instead, it appears that they chose to ignore the ordeal altogether and pretty much let it blow up in their own faces

A comparison of the numbers demonstrates the viral effect of YouTube.  Consider the following. As July 20th 2009

Sons of Maxwell YouTube video:

  1. Number of views:  2,544,668 view
  2. Number of comments: 13,288 comments

In contrast:

United Airlines YouTube Channel

  1. Channel Views: 84,791
  2. Most viewed video:  86,415 views
  3. Most discussed video: 122 comments
  4. Channel Comments: 115 comments (12 in the last few days; the rest, but one, over a month ago)

The power of the network!

These numbers clearly demonstrate the power of YouTube, turning an obscure musician into a video star and corporate headache in less than a week.

The Internet became for United Airlines an open platform for critics, and United Airlines could not or did not want to keep up with public reaction. Their traditional news channel remains hushed.  Their YouTube Channel has become a platform for snarky, negative comments with no reaction from United Airlines.  And look at the content on YouTube’s corporate channel: repurposed commercials and promotional videos. Dave Carroll’s video went viral, but United needs to do a better job serving up connect.  Do see Delta’s inflight safety video:  1,313,478 views!

Could they have managed this better?

The two tricks which United in particular missed were on YouTube and on Twitter. On YouTube, United Airlines could have recorded a response from a senior figure and then submitted it to appear as a “response” under the Dave Carroll song on the YouTube website. This would have been a very effective way to help ensure that those seeing the negative story also saw United’s response.

United Airlines has an established Twitter presence, with many thousands of followers. However, although it referred to the issue in a tweet the day after the song hit YouTube, this was done as an @ reply to another Twitter user. This means it won’t have been seen by many of their followers on Twitter (as, unless they were also following the person replied to, they won’t have seen the message in their normal stream of messages). Moreover, by not mentioning Dave Carroll’s name or the word guitars in the tweet, United ensured that it wouldn’t be found by people searching for tweets on the topic – again therefore missing out on an audience.

Since then United has upped its use of social media on the issue, including sending a pair of standard tweets, though again they missed out key terms that would be picked up by searches for news on the topic.

Learning: First, the benefits of having established social media presences so that, if bad news hits, you have the infrastructure ready to help deal with them. Second, the importance of getting the details right so that what you say via social media is seen by as many people as possible.