Responding in Real-Time

Songwriter Dave Carroll turned his consumer frustration into a protest video that shamed an airline into compensating him for his damaged guitar.It took four minutes for daredevil Felix Baumgartner to hurtle 129,000 miles from the edge of space to earth. It can take far less time for a video to go viral over the worldwide web.

United Airlines learned that speed lesson the hard way.

On a one-stop flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska, Canadian musician and songwriter Dave Carroll watched his $3,500 Taylor guitar get tossed ungently by baggage-handlers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. 

When he discovered the neck of his guitar was fractured, Carroll appealed to United ground crew employees, whom he said reacted indifferently. He subsequently filed a claim, which United rejected, saying he failed to file it with 24 hours after the guitar was broken.

After nine fruitless months of negotiations, Carroll tried a different consumer complaint desk. He wrote a protest song, which he and his band, Sons of Maxwell, videotaped and placed on YouTube under the title, "United Breaks Guitars."

Posted July 6, 2009, the protest video immediately attracted 150,000 views. Three days later, there were 5 million views. People are still watching the amusing video that pillories United Airlines, with more than 12.5 million views as of this week. Now Carroll has written a book called "United Breaks Guitars."

It took one day after the video was posted for United to contact Carroll and offer a settlement. But the public relations nightmare was already unleashed. The only solace for United is its use of the video in its personnel training.

David Meerman Scott, author of "Real Time Marketing and PR," uses the United incident and Carroll video as an example of how important speed is in a response. Scott says businesses that know how to use time and urgency can gain competitive advantages.

United's lethargic on-the-ground and consumer complaint responses sharply contrasted with the quick, instinctive response by Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars. Showing sympathy for Carroll's plight and displaying market savvy, Taylor supplied Carroll with the guitars he needed to make the protest video. 

Taylor went on to produce a homemade video, which he posted on YouTube, describing TSA rules that allow guitars in cases to be carried on board airplanes. He included the practical suggestion of printing out the rules to show airline attendants when boarding.

Scott says Taylor employed "real-time" marketing.

Calton, which makes guitar cases, also sniffed out a marketing opportunity. It quickly modified an existing product, transforming it into the Dave Carroll carrying case. 

(The underlying lesson of this case apparently didn't completely sink in with Calton. It has been involved in its own online scuffle with an irate customer who claims he ordered a custom ukulele case in 2010 that never arrived. The jilted ukulele player says Calton has offered an assortment of excuses ranging from a delivery address snafu to the threat of a hurricane. Now he says the company simply refuses to respond at all, which earned this from the would-be customer, "Please take this as a warning — do not do business with this organization.")

Real-time is a tight wire when it comes to managing a crisis or preserving a reputation. It demands urgent responses to protect long-term reputations.

The "you broke it, you should fix it" theme contained in Dave Carroll's widely viewed protest video has been converted into a pro-consumer book.