It must be tough to wake up each morning these days and realize your name is Glenn Tilton and you have to report to work as president and CEO of United Airlines these days.
On the B2B side, you’re under attack from associations and now Congress for your attempt to scrub credit card merchant fees. On the consumer front, a band called Sons of Maxwell has pulled 4.2 million hits on its YouTube video titled “United Breaks Guitars.” Even worse, people are humming the tune that goes with “I should have flown with someone else or gone by car, because United breaks guitars.” Dave Carroll is promising two more songs about his gripe, despite the fact the airline did step up and offer compensation after a year of denials.
Swell. The first one is now selling on iTunes for .99.
Here’s how a few social media experts would advise Mr. Tilton to turn this thing around:
The airline apparently thought it was responding in good humor by saying it intended to use Carroll’s video to train its employees. Not a bad concept, but tin-eared in execution, is Kathryn Hammer’s take.. “Great, break the guy’s pricy guitar, refuse to pay for it, ignore and stonewall the issue for a year, then, when you’re finally called out on it on the national stage, announce you’re helping yourself to his intellectual property. Wince.” Her strategy: Hire Carroll to make the training video along with the CEO and customer service leadership on camera. Pay the songwriter handsomely. It could even go so far as to hire him to do a series of short music videos for the United website, highlighting particular promotions and services, each beginning with, “Hi, I’m Dave Carroll, and United makes me sing.”
For that matter, make Tilton sing about how sorry he is, says Les McKeown, CEO of Predictable Success. If he is tone-deaf, all the better.
Donnetta Campbell would start with a YouTube video announcing a new foundation that gives guitars to underprivileged kids (really do it, she adds) and donate a bunch to pay a penance for the damage. Film the kids with their new guitars and lessons.
In that same vein, Matthew Broder, the communications wizard at Pitney Bowes, suggests a “bands fly free” promotion to established bands that can prove they are traveling to a paid gig. He’d even hire local musicians to set up a jam session at the select United gates.
When bad news goes viral like this, if a company doesn’t respond in the same channels, the audience is left with a negative opinion, points out Carol Warren, a principal at Antarra Communications. If this were her client, she would have already created a song about how United will fix the problem, making sure to poke fun of themselves. Nor would she stop there: regional Twitter email campaigns could clue people in on the best local places to hear music for upcoming flight destinations. She’d run a sweepstakes for folks to post regional music and food tips on Facebook — best tips win free air tickets based on the feedback.
Mario Almonte, the managing partner at Herman and Almonte PR, takes the opposite approach: “The United Breaks Guitar video is too catchy to be taken seriously. Airlines have always been notorious for losing baggage and destroying their content. United’s problem is not PR but its business practices,” he says. “ Riders don’t care about United’s business practice. They only care about their own personal experience. Give them a good deal and they’ll accept a little bad service.” If the airlines really want to fight fire with fire, they should put out a humorous video showing how annoying and inconsiderate musicians can be on their flights — e.g. taking up an entire overhead bin with their equipment, getting drunk and hitting on the flight attendants.
But no matter the tactic, funny seems to be United’s way out of this mess. After all, as David Moye, the media relations manager at Alternative Strategies, points out, “Explaining their business decisions in a fun way will get the support of consumers, who will forgive anything that’s funny. Think Richard Nixon saying, ‘Sock it to me.’”