Social media has given brands previously unmatched access to consumers, but we may forget that the customers also have access to those same communication tools and are able to broadcast their messages to the world. Whilst this is a fantastic opportunity to get your name out there, it is also necessary to understand that given a reason to, consumers could make your life very hard with negative publicity. Brands need to ensure that they respond in the right way to their customers, to avoid some serious public backlash like what United Airlines received after their less than professional handling of the “Sons of Maxwell”.

In 2008, the Sons of Maxwell, a rock group led by David Carroll, witnessed baggage handlers throwing their guitars on the tarmac whilst waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Chicago. On arrival, Carrolls’ $3,500 Taylor guitar had been broken. Despite claiming that the guitar had lost some of its unique sound through the bad handling, was simply asking for $1,200 to repair his guitar. He pursued compensation from United Airlines for 9 months, but fault was denied as well as any assistance or compensation to Carroll – the airline even rejected the idea of an apology!

In reaction to his feelings of utter dissatisfaction with the handling of this reasonable ask from United Airlines, he wrote a song about the incident and posted the music video on YouTube. After three days, it had received over 500,000 views and some serious iTunes popularity (it has now reached almost 12 million views on YouTube!). Carroll then wrote two more modest hits about the incident and United Airlines.

Within the first day, United Airlines apologised through Twitter. However, no mention was made on Facebook or their public release Facebook tab. United Airlines also failed to respond to any negative comments on their YouTube channel, and as a result negative sentiment quickly increased. Eventually, the airline made amends by donating $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute, as Carroll requested, however no resulting improvement was seen in luggage handling.

Carroll eventually began giving speeches on customer service to corporations around the country. He even flew United Airlines again, though the airline lost his luggage on a flight to Denver! Social media Today concluded that “United Airlines did follow the first rule of crisis communications by apologizing and trying to make amends.  It’s their failure to leverage and integrate their online channels that is at issue.”

From this mess of a Social media PR story, three lessons can be learnt. Firstly, using owned media could have saved the airline a large amount of negativity. They own the Facebook page and YouTube channel however failed to handle the situation at all on either of these sites; and paid the price.

Secondly, immediate response can stop the large outbreak of negativity before it even happens. How many millions of negative comments on YouTube need to be posted to get a company response? In the ideal world – only one. Immediate response on all channels will let the community know that you have dealt with the issue and then you will not have to deal with the issue. As a result, people will not retaliate as much against the initial scenario as a resolution has been reached.

Finally, it is important for companies to understand that sometimes change needs to be made. If this meant that United Airlines reviewed baggage handling procedure, then so be it. This change would have led to a much better outcome to the situation.

Good customer service doesn’t always stay with us, but bad customer service does.

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