United Breaks Guitars – a viral video lesson on YouTube

Thanks to Patrick Schwerdtfeger’s Saturday seminar on Social Media, I was alerted to a startling viral video on YouTube. United Breaks Guitars was written and performed by Canadian C&W singer Dave Carroll in response to an unfortunate mishap at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The story goes like this:

How the Guitar was broken

In the spring of 2008, Dave was on tour with his band, the Sons of Maxwell. They were traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour and his beloved Taylor guitar was seen by other passengers being thrown around by United Airlines baggage handlers on the tarmac in Chicago. He discovered later that the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. United didn’t deny the experience occurred but for nine months the various customer service representatives he communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate him for his loss.

YouTube speaks louder than words

Dave promised to the last person at United to finally say no to compensation (a hapless Ms. Irlweg) that he would write and produce three songs about his experience with United Airlines and post videos online to be viewed by anyone in the world who might consider flying the friendly skies. This is the first video – it was posted on July 6 2009 and in six weeks nearly five million people have viewed it.

As Joel Postman writes in SocialCorp:

“Negative buzz about your company is not something to be squelched but rather an opportunity to regain control of the agenda.”

United Airlines Responds

Within a day or so of the video being posted, the United Airlines Twitter feed reported that they were in contact with Dave. They issued a sincere apology, sprinkled in some humor, and even said they plan to use the video for training purposes:

United Airlines Twitter Feed

The next day, Dave posted a video update on YouTube. This has only been seen by 200,000 viewers. So, as Marketing 101 tells us, less than 5% of customers hear good news about your product or service to those who will hear bad news. In this video, he graciously accepts United’s belated apology and requests they donate the money for the damaged guitar to charity.

The moral of the story is that it is possible to rescue a damaged corporate reputation, but only if the company engages with Social Media as a form of response. To United’s credit their Twitter feed allowed them to do this.

Meanwhile, you don’t want to search YouTube for “Hitler Finds Out United Breaks Guitars”. Trust me. Only fans of Monty Python will find that video of the slightest interest.

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Joel Postman has written a thoughtful analysis of the response of United Airlines and the power of social media in his SocializedPR blog.

Also, it’s interesting to see the second of the 3 videos Dave Carroll plans to record was released Monday August 17 and the theme of the song very much supports Joel’s analysis: “We could be best buddies / But our friendship has been muddied / By a flaw in United Airline’s policy?

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