How will United Airlines respond to getting pwned by songwriter?

Musician Dave Carroll was traveling on United Airlines when his guitar was severely damaged by baggage handlers. His efforts over nine months to get compensation from the airline having failed, he is turning to the internet and his songwriting to shame the company instead. His pledge: three songs and videos about his experience to be released online. His first is out now, called “United Breaks Guitars“:

Interestingly, by launching this campaign against United, Dave is updating a similar campaign against the now defunct Republic Airlines by folk legend Tom Paxton. Back in 1984 or ’85, if memory serves (and this is the first time in a while that the internet fails me for this type of fact), Paxton played at the Northwind Folk Festival on Centre Island in Toronto. I was about 11 years old and getting ready to go to summer camp in Wisconsin. I was flying Republic Airlines and planning to bring my guitar, so it made a strong impression on me when Paxton performed his song Thank You, Republic Airlines, which retells a similar story:


Thank you Republic Airlines
What a joy to a musician you are
What a zest you’ve added to pedestrian skies
It was boring to be flying where the wild goose flies
But the tedium was broken by your wonderful surprise
when you broke the neck on my guitar


Paxton’s song ends with these prophetic words: “There could no satisfaction greater than if / you should be the next to go the way of Braniff.” [Braniff International Airways having gone bankrupt in 1982] Sure enough, Republic Airlines was purchased in 1986 by Northwest Orient to become Northwest Airlines (which merged with Delta last year). Paxton’s song was played on the Dr. Demento Show on September 28, 1986, certainly as a tribute to the merger which was to be completed later that week. Thank You, Republic Airlines appears on Paxton’s album One Million Lawyers and Other Disasters.

I like that Dave Carroll pledged three songs, not just one. That gives United time either to squirm or to respond. I gave a talk last week at the OCRI Entrepreneurship Centre in Ottawa about how social media requires companies to rethink their traditional legal strategies, and this situation might be a perfect example of that. Dave’s campaign is a new type of customer activism that involves his audience in his difficulty with the airline. When we watch/tweet/blog/forward his video, we become invested in his experience with the company. United needs to recognize that involvement and fashion a response that addresses it.

In my presentation, I talked about three possible responses to a situation like this. The first possible response is a traditional, conservative, black letter law response, or even an overreaching legal response — maybe United threatens to sue Dave Carroll for trade-mark infringement for using their name, or they ask YouTube to take down the video. This approach is almost bound to backfire since the audience is now involved and feels attacked.

The second possible response recognizes that the customer’s complaint is much more visible than ever before, and aims to stop it as quickly as possible. Given that more people have already seen Dave’s video, heard the song, and know the story than probably ever heard Tom Paxton’s song, it is important for the company to put a lid on it as soon as possible, so this is an improvement over the classic legal approach. And it may achieve the airline’s goal — perhaps they can get Dave Carroll not to release two more songs if they give him enough in return.

That second response, however, ignores the audience, and leaves lots of people hanging without their own resolution of the issue. I tell companies that they need to go even further than recognizing the customer’s new-found power to reach an audience. Not only does the social media environment present new challenges like Youtube videos by upset customers, it also presents new opportunities to respond. United should be looking for a response that engages Dave’s video and his audience and turn this into a promotional opportunity.

The fact that Dave Carroll is going to release three videos means that this will unfold over an extended period of time. I’m going to be watching United’s response as each video comes out — if they’re smart, they’ll find a way to bring Dave and his new audience on board before that last video hits the internet.

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