What to do when Social Media creates a Shit Storm

Only July 6, 2009 – United Airlines executives awoke to discover a social media shit storm had erupted thanks to this viral video from Dave Carroll.

Thanks to Carol Solomon of Stress Eating for the heads up about this video.

The video above was a long time in the making.  The  now infamous guitar tossing incident happened way back in March of 2008.   Dave writes on United Breaks Guitars about what it took to bring him to the point of creating the song (the first of a trilogy) and the video (again, probably the first of a trilogy).  After months of fighting with various levels of management at United… where they actively engaged in the age old customer complaint strategy of deny, obfuscate, and stall –  he writes:

At that moment it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it. However I realized then that as a songwriter and traveling musician I wasn’t without options. In my final reply to Ms. Irlweg I told her that I would be writing three songs about United Airlines and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download online, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite United song. My goal: to get one million hits in one year.

United Airlines can’t say they weren’t warned.

Dave Carroll promised Social Media Armageddon and he delivered.

With over 2.5 MILLION views for the video,  multiple television interviews and the resulting blog buzz, this story is not exactly what most businesses envision when they ask for a viral marketing campaign.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for Dave Carroll… but it looks like a shit storm from the other side.

There are several  pundits who are saying that United can make lemonade out of this shit storm.  The phrase,  “there is no such thing as bad PR” has been tossed around.   One recommends that United should try to leverage this disaster in their future marketing.

All I can say is I’ll take a kilo or more of whatever it is these people are smoking.

If United were my client – I’d share with them the wise words my mentor shared with me over 20 years ago.  When one of my advertising clients awoke up one Sunday morning to a PR shit storm in the Sunday paper of admittedly a much smaller scale – my mentor shared these valuable words of wisdom:

The more you stir shit- the more it smells.

Talk about pithy words of wisdom – those were it.  So when I sat down with the client on Monday morning, my advice was simple: LET’S NOT STIR THE SHIT!.

My advice to United would be the same.

Don’t try to make lemonade out of shit stew – no amount of sweetener is going to make this palatable.

I would also advise United to FIX WHAT IS OBVIOUSLY BROKEN.

The thing is – twenty years ago – the customer service practice of dealing with customer complaints by  denying, obfuscating, and stalling was actually sound business advice.  Why pay restitution if you didn’t have to?   (I have to wonder why flight vouchers weren’t offered to try to placate him.)  After a few frustrating and fruitless conversations, most customers would become frustrated or bored and give up.

If this situation had happened two decades ago, there wouldn’t be much backlash.   United might have lost a customer – maybe one or two more thanks to word of mouth.  However, adding up the lost revenue and comparing it to the restitution involved in this situation would have made this an easy call a generation ago.  This guy and his band don’t spend enough to make it worth it to make this right.

Twenty years ago – Dave Carroll couldn’t have caused more than a scratch to United’s Teflon coated brand.  Without access to the mainstream media – his message wasn’t going to get very far no matter how catchy, clever or well produced it was.

That was then – this is now.

Now – Dave Carroll is planning a second video – riding the wave and stoked with all kinds of creative energy on how to make the next video even BETTER than the first.

Rather than play armchair quarterback to all the opportunities inherent in the situation for United’s competitors in the marketplace – I’ll offer this admonition…

A new age has dawned and it’s name is social media.

Social media makes it easy for average people access to a world wide audience.  Those average, everyday consumers can use technology to create what is know as user generated content.  Sometimes, that user generated content is catchy and clever enough to do more damage in a week than several decades of carefully orchestrated media buys and brand strategy.

In my book –Beyond the Niche: Essential Tools You Need to Create Marketing Messages that Deliver Results I warn business owners to be aware that “power customers”  -those who can do serious damage to their marketing efforts – were not easily identified and as a result, EVERY customer needs to be treated as if he/she has the ability to influence dozens of other consumers.

Social media takes the power of a single consumer and expands it exponentially.

You never know when a consumer may have a popular blog – or even access to one – so treat them all like they do.

This is a full blown shit storm for United – but every day, similar smaller stories are happening all over the web. They aren’t as well documented as this one is but, then again, six weeks ago Dave Carroll was just another musician with a beef against United.

Another crippling blow in retaliation to piss poor customer service has been delivered.


  1. Great article, as always. I really enjoyed this video and your comments. I think he speaks (sings) for everyone who has been put off and frustrated by customer service reps. And that is, well . . . just about everyone. It would have been far less expensive just to do the right thing in the first place, than to create something that can’t be undone!

    Carol Solomons last blog post..How To Handle Stressful Events Without Overeating

  2. A hearty AMEN Carol! The fact that his frustration is “universal” is part of the reason this video has gone “viral” so quickly! I don’t think there’s an adult living in the United States who hasn’t at some time been the “victim” of the same “run around” Dave got from United.

    I have to admit – if I had a classic guitar worth over $3500 and I watched United baggage handlers trash it – I would probably be motivated enough to invest the time and energy he did at creating his “retaliatory” blow!!!

  3. There’s no excuse for a corporate “deer in the headlights” response when someone has to resort to tactics like Dave’s or blog posts like your Truly Nolen and our Adventures in Customer Service series. I say hooray for us Daves of the world! 🙂

    Betsy Wuebkers last blog post..MORE FROM LINMAR GARDENS

  4. Betsy,

    A new day is definitely dawning for the Truly Nolens AND the Wells Fargos of the world. You and I only “squealed” on our blogs about our toes (and the toes of our friends) being “stubbed”…. Dave took it a lot further. Then again – he lost a near and dear friend… his Taylor guitar!!!

    Wells Fargo should actually be QUAKING that Jannie Funster doesn’t pick up your cause and compose a song… are you up for it Jannie?

  5. This is an excellent example of consumer power at it’s very best. Obviously Dave Carroll wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble if United had behaved towards him in a better way, but they didn’t. And he did something about it.

    Viral campaigns like this are excellent for getting a message across. Just a shame for United that the message was a negative one – but then again whoever heard of people randomly creating songs about what a great flight they had and how excellent the company was etc – that just wouldn’t happen.

    With Social Media consumers have the power to air their disgust at any company, and there is nothing that the companies can do about it. Except fix the problems as soon as they become aware of them, and treat their customers with more respect. They won’t get a song written by a happy customer, but neither will they get this shit storm!

  6. Amelia,

    You point out another example of a “I want whatever it is you’re smoking” mindset… While a delighted customer MAY create a Facebook fan page to proclaim their love of your business – it’s not realistic to expect them to write a catchy jingle and then fly all over the country promoting it.

    Great point- when you treat your customers right – you won’t get a song which has almost 3 million views – but you’ll this mess!!!

  7. I hear United wrote him saying, “This struck a chord with us,” and they will be using the video in training employees (hopefully not as a the how-to part!).

    Lori Hoecks last blog post..‘Burn Notice’ teaches ‘Think Like a Spy’

  8. I had already seen this video and saw how many others had seen it, yep it is a big message and alert.
    I think Blogger Dad had a huge impact with his Target rant too and his my little pony for the guys posts.

    Here’s another thing to ponder: I have a sister who is manipulative and unstable, she uses the internet and social media to spy on me and my activities – I am thinking about dropping facebook – though it refers a great many readers to my blog. She has not discovered twitter yet, Stumbleupon or my actual blog…only time will tell when she is going to send investigators to my door or suing me about something else she thinks is unfair…
    I must be extremely careful because I am not making any money yet! When she finds out that I am – she will think of new schemes i am sure.
    Maybe I need to hire me a band?

    Patricias last blog post..Part II: The case for Eliminating Wall Street

  9. One of the greatest aspects of blogs and social media is that they give power to “ordinary” people.

    Vered – MomGrinds last blog post..Low Rise Jeans: Five Reasons To Hate Them, One Reason To Love Them

  10. Lori – I too had heard that United’s “mea culpa” was to use this in their employee training. What a farce!!! Trying to shift the blame to low level employees!!! Those employees didn’t make the policy – they were enforcing what was on the books.

    Patricia – I think you’re wise to keep in mind that people are watching – because they are. As for Facebook – you can set your stuff to “private” so only your approved “friends” can see. The same with Twitter. As for your blog – well, you can make your posts private as well. Social media tools are definitely SOCIAL.

    Vered – AMEN!!! Let this serve as yet another wake up call for businesses who think that it’s still business as usual 1960 style. The MadMen of this era are blogging.

  11. Natalie says:

    Social networking / media can have its benefits and drawbacks. In this case, it has seriously benefited the customer, and if well executed it may have benefited the airline.


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