United deals with song fallout

Last week, a music video was posted to YouTube that was every airline PR executive's nightmare: a catchy country-music song, professionally edited with a humorous music video, that was quickly spreading across the internet. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but the song was called "United Breaks Guitars," by Canadian singer Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, and describes his fight with the airline to receive compensation after United baggage handlers in Chicago damaged his $3,500 Taylor guitar.

In the last week or so, the song/video (which only cost $150 to make) has reached almost three million views on YouTube, gained prime-time exposure on CNN's Situation Room, and was the most popular song at the band's concert last Friday. “Everybody was calling for that song the minute we hit the stage,” Carroll said to Rolling Stone. “It was unbelievable, 1,500 people raising their hands in the air to the ‘United breaks guitars’ tag line in the chorus."

That's got to be causing some serious pain over at United headquarters in Chicago. It's bad enough when a YouTube video critical of your airline (no matter how light-heartedly) garners millions of views; it's even worse when you see that the song has had such success that over a thousand people put their hands in the air to the words of "United breaks guitars." How many of them are going to have that chorus line stuck in their heads at the first mention of United? And how many discussions of the song ("Did you see that video on YouTube?") are going to evolve into discussions about a lack of customer service on United ("You know, I flew with them last April...") ? And it's not over, yet - there are still two more songs on the way.

Obviously, it's hard to blame United for not seeing this particular incident arising. I don't think a case where someone, slighted by an airline, has turned around and released a wildly popular country song about their experiences. But it does highlight some serious customer service policy deficiencies, ones that United is seeking to rectify. As the pictured "tweets" show, United Airlines' PR department has been working hard to respond to comments on Twitter regarding the song, and has said that the video will be used for training, and that they've "apologized for, have fixed, and most importantly, learned from" the mistake, too. Airlines are starting to understand the power of social media - a $150 music video can be more effective than a multi-million dollar Madison Avenue ad campaign.

Perhaps airline reps everywhere now will be thinking in the back of their minds, "Could this turn into a smash YouTube hit?" After all, it worked for Carroll - national attention and a priceless amount of free publicity. Rolling Stone has said that Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars, personally phoned and offered Carroll two free guitars of his choice for the second video, while other airlines have reportedly offered him free tickets.


Jeffrey Synk said...

You would think that in this day and age that everyone would be aware of the impact of viral marketing. If you wrong someone, there is the chance that the whole world could know within hours.

As far as the customer service part goes, again, you would think that after all these years, the airlines would learn the importance of customer service. But --- I fly airplanes on the United Express side and the only thing I can control is my interaction with the passengers. Unfortunately though, by the time they get to me, they are not very happy. It is an uphill battle, especially in Chicago.