Lessons learned from 2009 — Yes, those are still relevant

United Breaks Guitars

One of my first memories of social communication crisis is the United Breaks Guitars incidence back in 2009, when social media was just becoming “a thing”. Here’s a recap of what happened. Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, was traveling on United Airlines when he and other passengers witnessed a guitar being tossed carelessly onto the plane. Turns out, it was Dave’s $3,500 Taylor guitar, which suffered severe damage. After a year of dealing with multiple United customer service representatives, which ultimately resulted in a “no, we can’t compensate you for your damage”, Dave decided to make a series of 3 music videos about the incidence. Here’s the first video.

The video was released on July 6, 2009, and immediately went viral. It accrued a few million views within the first week, received major media attention, and inspired numerous videos from “fans”. It was a remarkable story of David and Goliath, and everyone was cheering for Dave.

United Airlines responded swiftly by calling up Dave Carroll on July 7, and offering to compensate him for the damage (finally!). We know this because of these:

Dave then responded with a YouTube video on July 10, asking United Airlines to donate the compensation to a charity instead. Of course, by then, Dave has more than covered his damages via all the talk shows he’s been on.

United Airlines complied (try not to cringe at the grammar).

The crisis, from United’s perspective, has been resolved. As originally promised, Dave Carroll released 2 more videos (in a slightly more amicable tone), which gained much less attention.

Even though this happened in 2009, a lot can be learned from this in terms of social media crisis management. Let’s take a closer look at the situation and the lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Everything can go viral

This was clearly a preventable crisis, one where a series of offline actions (baggage handling, customer service) were brought to light and shared with millions through social media. This emphasizes the importance of value and culture across an organization. Any action by any employee can become under public scrutiny and impact the company’s brand.

Lesson #2: Your audience may be broader than you think

When the crisis broke out, United Airlines undoubtedly assessed the situation. The event is undeniably true. Even though the video went viral, the implication wasn’t too severe — it was a matter of customer service rather than customer safety. However, United Airlines misjudged its audience. United determined the audience to be Dave Carroll, and contacted him privately to resolve the issue. In reality, the audience is all of United Airlines’ customers, most of whom have experienced some frustration with the airline. This incidence further damaged the airline’s credibility, and everyone was looking to United to address the larger issue of customer service. Instead of a simple tweet update on the status of this specific incidence, United Airlines should have taken this opportunity to address its broader customer-base on the importance of customer service.

Lesson #3: Respond quickly

One major aspect of crisis resolution that United Airlines nailed is the speediness of its response. United reached out to Dave Carroll the day after the video was released. The outrage and brand damage would have been significantly greater if United delayed its response.

Lesson #4: Engage on the right platform

Why, United, oh why, did you not engage on YouTube? The initial response on Twitter is understandable — there is a trade-off between speediness and format. It takes time to create a YouTube video, so an immediate response on Twitter is a good decision. However, given that the crisis is in the form of a YouTube video and Dave Carroll responded with a statement on YouTube, it is shocking and confusing that United Airlines never engaged on YouTube… especially since they had a YouTube channel! What resulted was a mismatched conversation between David Carroll on YouTube and United Airlines on Twitter. #awkward.

Taylor Guitars, on the other hand, grasped this opportunity and uploaded a video on July 10, 2009 titled “Taylor Guitars Responds to United Breaks Guitars”. This video, in which Taylor Guitars expressed frustration over airline mishandling and provided tips for travelers with guitars, gained a few hundred thousand views. Well done, Taylor!

This is a significant missed opportunity for United Airlines. They could have taken control of the situation and proactively reshaped their brand. On the less creative end of the spectrum, they could have released a YouTube statement to apologize for the event, address the customer service issue, and discuss corrective actions, all of which would have increased their credibility as a brand. On the more creative side, they could have made a music video or collaborated with Dave Carroll to make a music video, admitting their mistake and showcasing corrective action, which would have added to their credibility and their creativity.

Lesson #5: Pay attention to the Internet

This incident occurred fairly early in the social media age. Maybe United Airlines wasn’t savvy in social media crisis management. But the Internet is. Immediately after the crisis occurred, several marketing and PR individuals wrote articles (such as this one) with great ideas on how to address the crisis and capitalize on the opportunity. United could have done a little better if they paid attention. Social media is a constantly evolving space. Even today, there may be value in paying attention to ideas from the Internet when a crisis breaks out.