United Breaks Guitars — Wrong Way Crisis Management

This video is a response by Sons of Maxwell singer Dave Carroll to some incredibly poor customer service by United Airlines. After he and his band members witnessed his $3500 guitar being mishandled and broken by baggage handlers, United sent him on a nine-month wild goose chase to find the person responsible for dealing with the situation, only to deny him any compensation at all.

Treating your customers badly is a surefire way to put your company in danger of needing some crisis management. With the YouTube video already garnering nearly three million hits and appearing on news programs nationwide, I’d say United is getting the message.


Jonathan Bernstein

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This entry was posted in crisis management, crisis prevention, crisis public relations, crisis response on by .

About Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan L. Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. has more than 30 years of experience meeting clients' needs in all aspects of crisis management - crisis response, vulnerability assessment, planning, training and simulations. Prior to launching his firm in January 1994, Bernstein created and served as the first director of the Crisis Communications Group for Ruder Finn, Inc., one of the world's largest public relations agencies.

Bernstein's crisis and issues management experience has encompassed a wide range of industries and subjects, to include accounting, architecture, associations, banking, charities, education, environment, financial services, food (retail and B2B), health care, housing, insurance, labor & employment, litigation, manufacturing, product recalls, professional services, real estate development, religious institutions, securities, security, senior housing, and white collar crime. He is a self-admitted "Internet nerd," online since 1982, who has pioneered strategies and tactics for Internet-centered crisis and reputation management.

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4 thoughts on “United Breaks Guitars — Wrong Way Crisis Management

  1. Lucien Canton

    Oh, sweet revenge! I hope it hits the charts.

    I'll bet United is wishing they'd fixed the guitar. We have a saying among members of my medieval recreation group: Never anger a bard, for your name is funny and scans well to Greensleeves!

    Thanks for an excellent case study on reputation management, Jonathan. Please update us if there's any substantive response from United.

  2. Jonathan Bernstein

    Thanks, Lucien! Actually, belatedly, in response to the huge impression made by the video, United assigned a special rep to the case to do whatever was necessary to make the victim happy. Better late than never — but barely!

    As a folksinger, balledeer, and RenFaire lover, I say "Huzzah" to your sentiment re not angering bards — or anyone who has a decent amount of Internet savvy!

  3. Anonymous

    I got here by Googling "crisis management" and "United breaks guitars." I was just curious about how United might have handled/be handling this situation. I think it's ultimately good for both United and the airline industry to get this kind of feedback. It's a cautionary tale. But I doubt very much that United was exactly prepared for a well-made music video about their poor service culture going viral! I just wonder, Mr. Bernstein, what you might personally advise United to do, right now, after the damage has been done? For the future, a different culture at United would help immensely. (I admire the culture at Trader Joe's, for example. Also, there is much relevant wisdom in "The New Economics" by W. Edwards Deming. Management is overwhelmingly responsible for culture — including things like customers getting the runaround.) – M

  4. Jonathan Bernstein

    United, at this point, has made amends for this particular transgression, but their entire staff needs to be told something that I've been telling clients and newsletter readers for some time. Almost everyone in North America over the age of 12 (and sometimes younger) carries a device capable of recording audio, video, and still photos, AND of transmitting them to websites and other people. As an example, it's possible to post to YouTube directly from many phones. Therefore, all United employees would be wise to act as if what they're doing or saying is being recorded! Particularly those who are so obviously in view of passengers, like baggage handlers, ticket agents, gate agents, etc. Crisis prevention is invariably much less costly than crisis response.

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