Dear United, Here’s Your Chance for Awesome Reputation Management

Posted by roadies

Dear @UnitedAirlines,

As you are well aware, @DaveCarroll has released a well-produced music video about lousy customer service that he experienced.  The video is thought-out, witty, satarical, and (most of all) it strikes a chord with the average consumer. In the rare case you missed it:

United Breaks Guitars

Now you and your C-level executives may have woken up that morning and felt the entire world was against you. Not only do you have a major public relations fiasco that needs to be dealt with, but it is happening in the worse possible economy when consumers are already timid about traveling by air for their summer vacations. This is truly a headache of the worse kind for any traditional PR firm.

But, lucky for you this isn’t a traditional public relations crisis. You actually have an opportunity to turn this single experience into one of the best case studies of online reputation management in internet marketing history. I’ll explain how:

When Dave gave up the fight with your various claims departments, he promised that he’d write music about his experience. In his version of the story, he explains that he’s over being upset and angry about the experience and that he’s actually thankful that you provided the fodder for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

You should be the one thanking him!

There’s some truth to the saying that "There is no such thing as bad PR". But it definitely can sting for a while, leaving behind a sour taste in consumers mouths. Trust that took forever to build will be lost…unless you act quickly. Your name is now being blasted across thousands upon thousands of tweets, facebook updates, myspace posts, blog posts, and other internet media outlets. In addition, your name is also being used in traditional media outlets where Dave has been asked to give interviews and discuss his "experience" and talk about the song. While he’s getting all this exposure, so are you.

Everyone knows the event happened. You can’t hide it or sweep it under the proverbial rug. And now everyone wants to know what you will do about it. How will you respond? Will you ignore this event like other big brands who think they are better than social media? Will your response be limited to a single, half-generic reply to an individual that you are "working on it"? Will you finally replace his guitar and then release a traditional press release about it?

I hope not, because if you do, you have failed.

Your opportunity lies in the ability to use the same creative outlets as Dave and respond to him directly. You’ll also be giving responses to traditional media inquiries and individual customers who have sung along to Dave’s tune. In addition to having an "official response" (though not "official" in the sense of traditional PR) you have the opportunity to leverage this branding opportunity far beyond the reach that you could have before Dave released his video and turn it into a success story. Below are a few ideas that I have that I offer unsolicited as ways to improve customer relations and brand reputation. I am a professional from a very incredulous industry where brands often receive an assault from not only users but also politicians and activisists. Reputation is extremely important in protecting the brands in my industry, and the anecdotes I provide below come from years of experience of "dealing with shit".

How you can turn United Breaks Guitars into your best branding opportunity ever:

  1. Acknowledge it happened and that you were wrong.
    By taking this official stance and letting your employees, PR firms, and ad agencies know that is your stance, you are opening the doors to allow mending to begin. This goes beyond a few corporate tweets or a press release. This needs to be a letter to all your employees so they can adopt the same views and show it in their customer relations. It’s true that you abided by your internal policies and this was a series of coincidental bad timing and follow-up, you still need to adopt the internal stance that you wronged a paying customer. Without this first step, nothing else matters.
  2. Respond to Dave directly using Dave’s way.
    Write a song, produce a video. This doesn’t need to be as thought out and well produced as Dave’s video, but it should definitely be humorous and light hearted. But it should also say "We’re Sorry!" loud and clear. For example, you could use the lyrics "It broke our hearts when we heard we broke your guitar". Using Youtube, post this video as a Video Response to Dave’s. This video might have an opportunity to go viral too, so get some quick minds on it and get it up ASAP.
  3. Send an email to all your consumers on your mailing list.
    It would be best if this was a letter from the CEO. Inform consumers of the video, that you thought it was fun and done very well, and that you are sincerely sorry that you caused Dave so much grief but you are thankful that he was able to have some fun at your expense. Link to this video directly from your newsletter so consumers know what you are talking about, and realize you aren’t trying to hide it. Next acknowledge that you are aware that Dave isn’t the only one who has had misfortune regarding baggage handling. Apologize to all your customers in this email. Then explain that you’re working directly with your contracted ground crews to enforce stricter baggage handling policies.
  4. Create a campaign asking every user to create their own YouTube music.
    Use those videos as part of a advertising campaign (online and ofline) to show that United Airlines now offers better baggage service. "No one cares about your stuff like you do, except for us." or something along those lines would make for a great message. The prize: 5 new Taylor Guitars or free airfare for a band (any 4 people).
  5. Hire Dave Carroll to produce a commercial.
    Yes, I said that. Hire him. This would go way beyond anthing you could do by paying to replace a relatively unknown band’s music equipment. By hiring him you are giving him, his band, and their creative abilities massive exposure. You are also ultimately owning up to your mistake and making the best of this situation in the most transparent way possible. The commercial doesn’t need to about baggage handling, but it does need to show Dave’s face and be a catchy jingle.
  6. The association between United and guitars has been made, so leverage it.
    Do something crazy like offer every member of the studio audience of Ellen a free guitar (cheap $100 Gibson acoustics from Costco) and free tickets for two. If anyone reports a broken guitar upon arrival at their destination, they get a million Mileage plus miles. It doesn’t have to be to this extent of crazye (or maybe you should), but the idea is to get people thinking that you are serious about protecting their luggage, even if it is a guitar.
  7. Finally, and this should be a no brainer, feature Dave’s band Sons of Maxwell in your in-flight entertainment.
    Write a cover story for your in-flight magazine, play their entire catalog in your in-flight music, and maybe even do a documentary for your in-flight TV.

These are just a few of the many, many ways you can capitilize on this moment of misfortune, and turn a negative into a positive. I’m sure that the community where this letter is posted will also have additional insight in their commentary to this letter, since I know they are some of the brightest minds on the entire Internet.

Dave’s story isn’t finished. He promised that he would write three songs. Song 1 is produced. Song 2 is written. And with the attention he’s getting, you can bet he’s going to write Song #3 soon. If you and your agencies play your cards right, the third song will be like a happy ending to a story. It will be about how you finally listened and you helped out.  Ultimately, the goal here should be that when Dave writes his third song, the title should be something about "United bought me a brand new guitar!"

I truly hope that the appropriate people find and read these words. This is truly the opportunity of a lifetime for United Airlines to turn a horrible PR disaster into a marketing story of the decade. All you need is to care a little, and hustle a lot!

I’m very excited to see if and how you handle this, regardless if you ever read this letter. I have a passion for how corporate america responds to individual consumers and love to learn the lessons that are publicly available on such a wide scale from these interactions.

Best of luck captilizing on the unfolded events!
Jason Murphy (aka @MurphyJason)

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