Social media disaster lessons your company can learn from

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Thu, 13 Apr 2017 Source: Daniel Adjei

A passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight this weekend, Sunday, April 10, was forcibly removed and dragged off the plane, another passenger recorded the incident and posted the video on social media.

The security pulled the man from his seat and dragged him by his arms through the aisle. This happened after United asked for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers, a hotel stay and a rescheduled flight the following afternoon.

The man screamed as the security officials removed him from the aircraft. United Airlines still does not understand social media. Here's the essential truth for brands: you don't control the message.

That era ended more than a decade ago. The epoch of top-down brand communication is over.

Yet on a Monday morning in April 2017, United Airlines top trending topic on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media for all the wrong reasons. It's 2017; virtually everyone has a smartphone capable of shooting video and uploading it to the social web in an instant.

When United decided to involuntarily remove passengers from their overbooked flight -- an issue of their own making--and didn't consider the potential negative consequences of this decision, they made a critical faux pas in the social media era. Everyone has a smartphone.

Inevitably, the footage will show up on social media, act accordingly. Traditional Corporate PR is useless on social media. Consumers see through these smoke screens instantly. Don't post your press release on Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn and expect a blind acceptance of your explanation. You need a social crisis response protocol. Offer apologies.

Take responsibility. Promise to improve your procedures (and do so). Accountability starts at the top and applies to everyone in the organization.


Before they're customers or consumers or passengers or revenue sources, they're PEOPLE.

There's your starting point as expressed byDavid Ginsburg. Richard Wilson shares the story of “United Breaks Guitars" and the lessons we all need to learn to improve our customer experiences every day; it is a customer service nightmare. At the same time, it is a good lesson about how social media can impact your business.

Here’s what happened:

A singer/songwriter named Dave Carroll was flying from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska, with a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

As he was getting ready to get off the plane, he heard another passenger say, “My God! They’re throwing guitars out there!”As Dave and the other band members looked out onto the tarmac where the luggage was being unloaded, they recognized the guitars. Their reaction was a blend of terror and disbelief.

Later he indeed discovered that his $3,500 Taylor guitar’s neck had been broken.What followed was a customer service nightmare. Dave tried for nine months to get a claim processed with United Airlines. The response was a firm and consistent “no.” They claimed he had waited longer than 24 hours to process a claim, so he was out of luck.He tried phone calls.

He tried e-mails. He even went so far as to suggest that instead of money, United give him $1,200 in flight vouchers to cover the cost of repairing the guitar. United Airlines held firm. They said “No.”

So, what else could a singer-songwriter do? That’s right. He wrote a song and produced a music video. The song was titled “United Breaks Guitars.” He put it up on YouTube and it went viral.

Now just in case, you’re not up on this particular piece of internet slang, “viral” means one person sends it to ten of their friends, who send it to ten of their friends, who send it to ten of their friends, and so on.

It follows the same pattern of how a bad cold gets passed around. It also means that pretty quickly very large numbers of people were singing along to “United Breaks Guitars.”As of this write-up, this video has had 16,907,548 views.

After 150,000 views, United Airlines contacted Dave Carroll and offered payment to make the video go away. He had changed his mind, however. It wasn’t about the money anymore. In fact, he suggested they donate the money to a charity.

United also discovered that “United Breaks Guitars” wasn’t just a single song. It was part of a trilogy - negative impressions.That’s a lot of people listening to catchy tunes about United Airline’s customer service.

Of course, the impact of Dave’s song went far beyond YouTube.As “United Breaks Guitars Song 1” was becoming an internet phenomenon, the news media picked up the story.

Soon newspapers and news broadcast media across North America were doing stories about the song.

Dave became a sought after guest on many radio and TV shows where, of course, he retold the story of “United Breaks Guitars.” He did over 200 interviews in the first few months.

Then the copycats and parodies started. There are now countless add-on videos that others have posted on YouTube.

They range from a parody called, “United Breaks Guitars – Inside Response from United Airlines” to “Hitler Finds Out United Breaks Guitars.”Add a few million more views to the discussion about United.

How has the public felt about this portrayal of United Airlines? When you look at the “United Breaks Guitars Song 1,” 51,327 people voted that they liked it against 1,012 dislikes.

That’s roughly a 50-to-1 ratio against United.A recent Google search of the term “United Breaks Guitars” returned 2,690,000 results.

Remember the offer from Dave to accept $1,200 worth of travel vouchers as compensation for the repair costs? Compare that to millions of people singing along to songs about how they wish they’d “…flown with someone else….or gone by car…because United breaks guitars…”

One story out of Newark, New Jersey describes an entire shuttle filled with passengers who spontaneously began singing “United Breaks Guitars” while traveling between terminals.This tsunami of bad public relations has certainly had an effect on people’s decision in choosing an airline.

The BBC reported that United’s stock price dropped by 10% within three to four weeks of the release of the video – a decrease in valuation of $180 million.United is clearly the loser.

Taylor Guitars, the people who made the now famous guitar — and who are referenced in the video — had their own response.They gave Dave a new Taylor Guitar. But that’s not all.They created their own YouTube video.

In it, they stated how unhappy they become when any guitar gets damaged and reminded people about their repair services. They also offered free information about how to travel safely with guitars.This quickly produced two-minute video has generated 562,777 views.

They came out an unanticipated winner in this adventure by taking positive action.

What does this mean for your business?

We live in a world where YouTube videos can get a following overnight. A website such as www.your-business-sucks.com can be set up and operational in about an hour.Having a philosophy of doing the right thing is more important than ever. Information now travels at the speed of the internet.

Sadly, bad news seems to travel faster than good news.But don’t just approach the idea of “doing the right thing” because of its public relations value. This philosophy is rightly the foundation of any sound, successful business.

Deliver exceptional service and high-quality products. Turn your customers into raving fans. Use that base of support to get positive reviews on social media sites. The way to counter an unhappy customer’s one-star rating is by having ten five-star ratings already in place.

So first, earn the positive reviews from your customers. Next, encourage them to share those positive reviews with others.And try to avoid antagonizing anyone who can create a catchy music video.

Building an excellent reputation

Building an excellent reputation is a process. It’s not a single event.An excellent reputation is the result of many positive actions over a period of time. There are, however, some strategies that can accelerate the process.

The best time to implement them is now before anyone starts singing songs about you. Customer Service has now moved to customer experience and the baseline is TREAT PEOPLE WITH RESPECT. The power is yours.

Columnist: Daniel Adjei