Saturday, July 11, 2009

United Breaks Guitars - UA's PR Gaff

You can run but you cannot hide when it comes to PR blunders. This week, United certainly received a tough lesson in customer relations and how not to manage a PR crisis. All brand managers take note - social media can be your friend, or in this case, your worst nightmare.

In the spring of 2008, Canadian singer songwriter Dave Carroll was traveling with his band Sons of Maxwell to Nebraska for a one-week tour and witnessed his Taylor guitar being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. He later discovered that the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. While United didn’t deny the experience occurred, United employees kept passing the buck from person to person, refusing to deal with his issue. After nine months, United finally said they would do nothing to compensate Dave for his loss.

Frustrated, Dave decided to go viral with his complaint in the best way he knew how - he wrote a song and produced a video which he launched on YouTube. The story was picked up by CNN and other news channels and within days Dave became a hero; an overnight sensation. United responded to the video by agreeing to reimburse Dave, but the damage to their reputation was already done. As I write, over 2 million people have played Dave's video and it has prompted a viral outpouring of empathy.

This is another great case study to add to the annals of social media and brand crisis management (along with Motrin and Dominos), where companies learn the hard lesson in today's digital world, that every customer's voice counts and that the tenor of that voice can be echoed a million times in a matter of days. But the real issue for United goes much deeper. You've got to believe that there is an aspect of the culture at the airline that enabled this crisis - a culture where employees are limited by rulebooks rather than empowered to do what's right for the customer. In brand building every consumer touch-point counts, and as we've seen in so many other companies whether they be Southwest, Starbucks or Zappos, employees at every level can make or break a brand experience.

Maybe this crisis will make United start to think a little differently about managing the brand experience.

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