United Air Lines learns the power of viral revenge

Have you seen the YouTube video "United Breaks Guitars"? Besides being genuinely funny, it's a great example of viral revenge, the flip side of viral marketing. The video accompanies a song by the band Sons of Maxwell that describes how United Air Lines' baggage handlers carelessly treated band members' checked instruments. A valuable guitar belonging to band leader Dave Carroll was broken. For over a year, United repeatedly declined his requests for compensation.

That's when the band turned to social media for revenge, posting its complaint on YouTube. United Breaks Guitars has a catchy tune, clever lyrics and memorable images. The video has gone viral and broken the band out of relative anonymity. After only three days, it had almost 1.5 million views and 10,000 comments, virtually all siding with the band. The story was picked up by CNN, NPR and CBS.

Faced with this social media juggernaut, United dropped the ball. It issued a single tweet stating, "This has struck a chord w/us and we've contacted him directly to make it right." So far, the company hasn't posted a response on YouTube or its own Web site. Dave Carroll knows how to take full advantage of the power of social media. United doesn't, and the cost is a PR nightmare. Lessons abound. For starters, corporations that long have monitored the media to understand public perception can't ignore social media, everything from blogs to video sites. And responses have to be in the appropriate channel. In this case, United needed to do a YouTube posting. Even something stiffly corporate like an apology from a contrite executive would have been helpful (provided it was sincere). But to be truly effective, United needed to try to match Carroll's creativity and good humor.

Something along these lines would have gone far to erase the damage and maybe win some fans:

We saw your YouTube song.

What can we say? We were wrong!

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

We're so sorry that you had to mention

All of this in a public way.

We've decided we should pay!

In return for this moment of hilarity

Here's a check for your favorite charity.

We'll use your video to train our employees right.

Please use these free tickets on a future United flight!

This admittedly feeble response took five minutes to compose. (Fortunately, you cant hear me sing it.) I'm sure United can do better. And it could have made this negative event pay dividends by holding a contest for a sung response and posting the winners.

Companies probably fear giving things like the Sons of Maxwell video any extra attention, but by choosing not to engage, they are letting the opponent win all the debate points. And in this case, a lot of points are being scored. As of today, the band's video was approaching 3 million views. Time waits for no man, and the Web waits for no PR department.

Every PR professional knows how in 1982, Johnson & Johnson addressed the Tylenol scare in a way that actually improved public perception of the company and increased product sales. But United didn't apply that lesson to the new media and clearly lost this confrontation. It ultimately agreed to pay (Dave donated the money to charity), but the whole affair tarnished rather than burnished United's public image.

Viral revenge is powerful. If your own organization faces a PR nightmare in social media, don't fall prey to a "Least said, soonest mended" mind-set. Not when profits are down and competition is high. Respond quickly and effectively, or be prepared to face the music. Over 3 million times, and counting. n

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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