Roasted in the Social Media – Case Study – “United Breaks Guitars”

The biggest public relations nightmare that companies used to have to worry about was a 60-Minutes news crew showing up in the lobby.

Now any customer or employee with a grievance can be just as powerful at bringing attention to a company’s perceived misdeed as an entire investigative news crew.  Especially if that customer or employee knows how to use the social media.

Case Study -

Musician Dave Carroll turned an unfortunate experience into a catchy, funny song published on YouTube which received millions of views, was reproduced thousands of times on the web, and was covered by major network media.

What can a company do about it if they’re being spoofed, mocked or roasted?

1) Be aware of it.

You don’t want to find out about this sort of thing after the fact.  If you’re observing the social media regularly and searching for your company and product names on major social media outlets (like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs) you can see that a video or blog post is out there and notice that it’s becoming popular.

2) Assess the damage.

The web is full of metrics – you can see how many times a video has been viewed on You Tube, (more than 3 million at this writing)  and how many Google hits the topic has gotten (3,010,000) and how many times it has been mentioned in other social media.   (Note – Our Social Media Watchdog program generates daily, weekly or monthly reports for companies – you don’t need to do all the monitoring and research yourself!)

Also determine the severity of the “allegation.”  In this case, a beloved Taylor guitar was broken, which is a terrible thing for the owner, but as public relations disasters go, it wasn’t tragic.   Will this incident make people change their travel plans?  Maybe if they’re traveling with an expensive guitar!  But that’s a fairly small percentage of the traveling public.

3) Develop an action plan.

In this case, United (as mentioned in the article below) did a great job of acknowledging the issue.  In fact, they conceded that the “video was excellent” and they plan to use it in internal training.  They have been in discussions with Carroll, who created a follow up video statement and is promising a new song.

Whatever media or method you use, it’s best to keep this at the level of a dialog and not a shouting match.  Keeping a sense of proportion and a sense of humor is critical. Whether your company decides to create an internal response (like investigating the incident and making changes to internal procedures) or an external one (like responding to reporters about it or even creating a blog post or other social media response) depends on the first two steps – being aware and assessing the damage.

Social media happens quickly.  The more quickly you’re aware of it, the more options you have!


Guitar player’s revenge a smash hit

July 11, 2009 – The Sydney Morning Herald

200 carroll 1107 200x0 Roasted in the Social Media   Case Study   United Breaks GuitarsDave Carroll strums away his frustration.

A CANADIAN musician who accused United Airlines of breaking his prized guitar has taken his revenge, writing a song that has become an internet hit and a public relations disaster for the airline.

Dave Carroll composed United Breaks Guitars and posted it on YouTube after he said the airline damaged his treasured Taylor acoustic at Chicago’s O’Hare airport last year.

“We were sitting at the back of the plane with the band and a woman who didn’t know we were musicians yells out, ‘Oh, my God, they’re throwing guitars outside’,” Carroll said.

After months of trying to get the airline to pay compensation and help repair the instrument, valued at $C3500 ($A3853), Carroll changed tack.

“I had this sort of epiphany,” he said. “I’m going to write songs about your airline and I’m going to put them on YouTube and talk about my experience.”

On Thursday, United Breaks Guitars had nearly half a million views on YouTube and had been covered by the major news networks. The video features the folk-rockers looking on in horror as “United” ground staff clumsily play catch with a guitar case and pound it with mallets.

A United Airlines spokesman told the Los Angeles Times the “video is excellent and we plan to use it internally as a unique learning and training opportunity to ensure that all our customers receive better service”.

The American Federation of Musicians said Carroll’s case was “not unlike the classic David and Goliath story”, and highlighted a common problem for musicians. “With this one song, David has remarkably been able to accomplish something that lobbyists have been trying to resolve for 10 years,” said Bill Skolnik, an AFM vice-president.

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14 thoughts on “Roasted in the Social Media – Case Study – “United Breaks Guitars””

  1. We should all avoid United until they reimburse him for his guitar !
    Great song..lousy airline !

  2. You might want to rethink this assertion, “Also determine the severity of the “allegation.” In this case, a beloved Taylor guitar was broken, which is a terrible thing for the owner, but as public relations disasters go, it wasn’t tragic. Will this incident make people change their travel plans? Maybe if they’re traveling with an expensive guitar! But that’s a fairly small percentage of the traveling public.”

    I’m in the “small percentage” of frequent flyers who have a choice and can vote with my purchases. United + O’Hare = ridiculous delays & lost/damaged baggage. There is a management issue to be addressed. Broken guitars and a catchy tune just makes my day.

  3. Only roasted? United Airlines has been already charred. It has become no longer edible.
    With the ever-increasing role and effect of social media channels, the only way for all kinds of businesses is to go back to basics. I am quite sure that the current economic crisis is a result of forgetting the basics and switching to greedy patterns of business. Mr. Madoff, who scammed the whole world, is just an example.
    United Airlines was aware of the case from the beginning as its careless employees were carefully playing all major roles of the customer service drama. United Airlines failed to assess the potential damage when the case was totally under its control before pushing the passenger to the point of no return.
    Obviously, social media is recreating the rules of the game. Are we expecting to see social media channels added to the list of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ahmed – I hope that social media will help companies understand the bottom-line logic of treating customers well. Many already know this, some are learning the hard way.

  5. Thank you for your attention to detail and great writing style. Your professionalism shows in your article. I like your interesting views and appreciate your unique ideas. This is quality.

  6. I like to read well-written and thought out articles. You have included all the qualities I like in your content. It’s engaging, smart, interesting and thought-provoking material. I agree with your unique viewpoint. Thank you.

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