The broken guitar social media story: Lessons to learn

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The video introducing this post has been around for some years now, though I only learned about it as a speaker at our local home builder’s association last week described the impact — and dangers — of social media.

Musician Dave Carroll says he observed baggage handlers mishandling his guitar at the airport. And indeed, when the plane landed, the instrument had been destroyed. He says he went through about eight months of “customer service hell” as United Airlines denied responsibility for the mishap — and refused his claim, apparently because he failed to file it within a day of the flight.

Carroll decided to use his musical talent to create what turned out to be three YouTube videos, which went viral, and caused havoc.

Here is the Wikipedia telling of the story:

Media reported the story of the song’s instant success and the public relations humiliation for United Airlines.[1][5][7] Attempting to put a positive gloss on the incident and the song, a company spokesman called it “excellent”. Rob Bradford, United’s managing director of customer solutions, telephoned Carroll to apologize for the incident and to ask for permission to use the video for internal training.[6] United claimed that it “hoped” to learn from the incident, and to change its customer service policy accordingly.[4]

Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars, immediately offered Carroll two guitars and other props for his second video.[7] The song hit number one on the iTunes Music Store the week following its release.[10] The belated compensation offer of $3,000, which was donated by United to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as a “gesture of goodwill,”[11] failed to undo the damage done to its image.[12] In response to his protest’s success, Carroll posted a video address thanking the public for their support while urging a more understanding and civil attitude towards Ms. Irlweg, who was just doing her job in accordance with mandated company policies in this affair.[13]

Reportedly, the negative publicity caused a share price drop for United amounting to $10 million. Carrol, meanwhile, had a new career — as a social media and customer relations/service consultant. You can buy his book on the topic today.

After learning about the story, I decided to test its actual relevance for architectural, engineering and construction industry marketers. In fact (despite copycats), Carroll’s experience is a kind of one-in-a-million thing. A business truly peeved off a client with an exceptional talent (music) and the resources to produce relatively sophisticated music videos.

What are the odds of that sort of problem happening to your business?

Probably not that great, I think. In any case, if we managed to allow our employees to engage in serious negligence and cause real harm to our clients (especially on a larger scale architectural, engineering or construction project) I think our least significant worry would be about some negative social media publicity. Rather, I expect we would be facing serious and expensive litigation.

This doesn’t mean however we should ignore Carroll’s story. In fact there may be an argument to conceiving a musical video to promote our own projects or services. And clearly we should not ignore social media, because of its incredible (yet sometimes subtle and surprising) impact and effectiveness. I’ll share my own recent story in an upcoming post.

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