By now, many of you have seen or heard about the Dave Carroll YouTube video and how United Airlines' baggage handlers mangled his guitar.  It once again demonstrates the power of authenticity, creativity and compelling content to grab attention and send PR executives reeling. 

Before I begin, I don't want to beat up on United Airlines, but what happened last week is a case study on why companies need to take videos and their online response very seriously.  They did speak to reporters, but as this post will show, key social media channels were neglected.  And I am not privy to all the behind the scenes efforts that went on to work with Mr. Carroll and other upset passengers. I only see what the public sees.

The numbers of YouTube views and Twitter tweets are just staggering.  Like the infamous Comcast customer service rep video, Dave Carroll's video undermines United Airlines' reputation and hurts its brand.  

Numerous traditional media outlets covered the story (LA Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune), but it was YouTube, Twitter and blogs that fueled the flame. In Carroll's own words, here is what happened: 

In the spring of 2008, Sons of Maxwell were traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour and 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 didnt 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 the last person to finally say no to compensation (Ms. Irlweg) 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. United: Song 1 is the first of those songs. United: Song 2 has been written and video production is underway. United: Song 3 is coming. I promise.

It's a great story of how a little guy took on the indifferent corporate giant, but the numbers behind the story are just as interesting.

By the Numbers

A comparison of the numbers demonstrates the viral effect of YouTube.  Consider the following. As of this Monday:

Sons of Maxwell YouTube video:

Number of views:  2,544,668 view

Number of comments: 13,288 comments

In contrast: 

United Airlines YouTube Channel

Channel Views: 84,791

Most viewed video:  86,415 views 

Most discussed video: 122 comments

Channel Comments: 115 comments (12 in the last few days; the rest, but one, over a month ago)

And look at the negative Channel comments with no response from United Airlines: 


And now look at Twitter:  9 tweets mentioning Dave Carroll on the United Airlines Twitter page compared to the flood of tweets about Dave Carroll elsewhere. 


Here is a random sampling of the thousands (can't verify number) of tweets about Dave Carroll (note the number of video views from Friday: 1.325 million):


And let's look at Facebook. 13 comments were about Dave Carroll, all were negative. Now, InsideFacebook lists the United Airlines fan page as “unofficial.” A lost opportunity to engage with the more than 9,000 fans. In comparison, check out Southwest Airlines Facebook page - more than 70,000 fans strong, and it's official.



And note, no news from the UA pressroom (though they did speak with reporters).


Beyond the Numbers

So what should we make of the numbers?  Clearly, it demonstrates the power of YouTube, turning an obscure musician into a video star and corporate headache in less than a week.

The Internet became for United Airlines an open platform for critics, and United Airlines could not or did not want to keep up with public reaction. Their traditional news channel remains silent.  Their YouTube Channel has become a platform for snarky, negative comments with no reaction from United Airlines. And the 9 posts on Twitter don't communicate, in my opinion, an authentic, heart felt apology. Making a charitable donation is nice, but it doesn't address the the problem that prompted Dave Carroll to make a video in the first place. And Facebook is a non factor.  

And look at the content on YouTube's corporate channel: repurposed commercials and promotional videos.  It's no wonder the number of views for their most popular video pales in comparison to the number of views of the Dave Carroll video.  Yes Dave Carroll's video went viral, but United needs to do a better job serving up connect.  Consider Delta's inflight safety video:  1,313,428 views!

And I should also add, I have overseen crisis communications.  Sometimes legal and HR issues require a low profile.  I am not sure this is one of those instances.


Again, I don't want to pick on United. I am a PR guy after all.  Social media is forcing all companies to reevaluate their PR strategies.  To be fair, companies can't compete with satire and entertainment in the battle for public opinion. But Carroll resorted to something that works: authenticity. And he did so in a way that was meaningful and entertaining.   It recounted an experience that we all can appreciate.  And so with all the resources that it has, United Airlines was crushed by creative storytelling. (Forget news releases and investigative reporting when you have music videos.)

First of all, 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.  

I would advise them to examine their YouTube Channel for content and their response policy for comments. Customer service is an issue. Therefore have more videos on what you are doing to improve service and instructional videos on what to do if your baggage is damaged or lost. Like what Comcastcares has effectively done with Twitter, use this experience as way to monitor and respond to customer service complaints, and reach out to the people who tweeted.

This crisis will pass.  One entertaining video will not bring down an airline.  And the good news is that the next video will have to be amazing to get this kind of reaction.

But here is my final point. Customers need to be careful what they wish for.  YouTube gives power to the people, but this video certainly raises the stakes of what is needed to get attention and make news.  Less talented people will still need to write letters and reach out to local news action reporters.

Let me get back to you.


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