When we talk about notorious social media crisis cases, we have to mention United Breaks Guitars. it is an episode from 2009 but its virality made it difficult to forget.
All began when Canadian musician Dave Carroll made a trip from Chicago to Omaha by United Airlines in 2008. During a stop-off, he heard another passenger commenting that the airport crew was “throwing guitars”. Once at the destination, Carroll found out that his guitar, an expensive $3,500 USD Taylor, was seriously damaged. When he complained to United, he was told that the airline policy is to receive complaints within a 24 hour timeframe only. Considering the time limit was over, they could not do anything. Of course, Carroll got upset and to express his anger he decided to compose a song and to create a video clip for YouTube, telling about the episode. The song is called “United Breaks Guitars”.
The video was uploaded on July 6, 2009 and got 150,000 views in only one day. A month later it reached 1 million views. Then 5 million in August 2009 and 10 million in February, 2011. Its social media virality was boosted by international press coverage. It became a viral video, with users from all over the world creating their own humorous fan-made versions of the video and mocking United Airlines too. The song reached top 1 on iTunes in its release week. Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars, made his own video commenting on the case and giving advice about how to travel with guitars.
United Airline’s attempts to reach an agreement were not satisfying because Carroll stated he was not looking for monetary compensation but a change in the airline’s policies. United offered $3,000 USD as a goodwill gesture and Carroll proposed they send the money to a charity. United Airlines did that and they thought the issue was solved but then Carroll made a second video.
The “saga” ended with a third video after United promised to improve its policies and customer service. In this third video clip, Carroll finally ends the dispute and says he will wait for the changes.
The whole case was of course a big social media crisis and bad publicity for United Airlines. At the same time, good publicity for Dave Carroll. As a result, Carroll began giving speeches on social media and customer service, published a book titled “United breaks guitars” and launched Gripevine, a platform where users can post their complaints about products and services, and get answers and solutions. An interesting anecdote: Carroll travelled by United Airlines again, and this time they lost his luggage.
Interestingly, this is not the first time United Airlines faced problems because online complaints. There is a previous case, even more striking because it happened before the social media boom. In 1997, unresolved complaints made by a passenger, Jeremy Cooperstock, made him create untied.com, a website where all United Airline’s passengers can share bad experiences and complain about the company. The domain name is a play on words but also a potential misspelling when people type united.com, the official address. Also, the parody website is quite similar to a real airline website.
“United breaks guitars” is a good example of a badly handled social media crisis.