A Public Relations Nightmare

WRITTEN April 7, 2012 Author: Rich Atkins

Does United Break Guitars?

Public Relations Nightmare
Dave Carroll in his video United Breaks Guitars

Canadian musician Dave Carroll suffered the loss of a valuable instrument at the hands of an airline carrier. When he asked for the company to make good on their mistake, he was denied. Dave knew that consumers have power and a voice, and he decided to create a public relations nightmare.

This Is Dave’s Story

“In the spring of 2008 … my Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. I discovered later that the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. They didn’t deny the experience occurred, but for nine months, the various people I communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for my loss. So I promised … that I would write and produce three songs about my experience with United Airlines and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world.”

Another empty threat from an irate customer, right? Well, not exactly. Take a look at Dave’s YouTube video, “United Breaks Guitars. 
“United Breaks Guitars” is now also a BOOK!

It’s an entertaining and catchy song and a well-made video. A day after the first video was posted, it had received 150,000 hits. Three days later, it had 500,000 views. Two months after that, it had five million hits, not to mention widespread mainstream media (and social media) exposure! Currently it has over fifteen million hits!

The negative point was made about United’s customer service and did considerable damage to its brand. Beyond that, it made one of the strongest cases ever forcustomer-generated communication.

Improving Communications likes the work of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing Corporation. Ernan promotes Voice of the Customer (VoC) Relationship Research for understanding how your customers and prospects want you to improve the quality and value of your products and services. In other words, listen to your customers. Talk to them, and especially, let them talk to you.


  • The video’s instant success brought great embarrassment to United.
  • United now uses the video in its customer service training.
  • Claims were made that the video had a direct tie to United’s stock price drop following its release.
  • Bob Taylor (of Taylor Guitars) stepped up and offered Carroll two guitars and props to use in his second video (now that’s good customer service and terrific publicity!).
  • Carroll emerged as an in-demand speaker on customer service.

Consider This

For a long time, companies have been accustomed to one-way communication. In the Social Media Age, customers can talk back. Give them positive and memorable experiences, so they will become fans–not adversaries.
Most important–when you make a mistake (and you will):

  • Show concern / gather data
  • Explain value and wrongness
  • Apologize and vindicate
  • Fix the problem
  • Make amends
  • Set up for the future
  • Validate

If you were in United’s position, what would you do to anticipate such a situation? How would you have handled this public relations nightmare?

At Improving Communications, we want to hear what you have to say. Find and like us on Facebook. Start a conversation. Tell us what you think. We’re very interested and eager to hear from you.

This information is from the Improving Communications Improving Customer Service class. If you’re looking for ways to improve your communication skills, register for one of our public classes.  CLICK FOR MORE INFORMATION.

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