United Breaks Guitars – Lessons for the Public Relations Playbook


The United Breaks Guitars case study shows that social media cannot be overlooked in a company’s customer service operations. Dissatisfaction with the company can propagate like wildfire over the Internet. In the short discussion piece that follows, this author attempts to show the significance of social media in public relations, as well as suggesting how United could have done better amidst this negative publicity.


It is indubitable that social media has changed the public relations playbook for many companies. Previously, before the user-generated content Golden Age that Web 2.0 brought about, people who felt aggrieved had little recourse against the company. Now, people are able to tweet their frustrations, write a rant on the company’s Facebook page, or in this case, make a music video. In all cases, the actions taken by them are highly visible. Contrast this to a private email complaint to the company – the latter is definitely less visible and subject to less public scrutiny. In addition to increased visibility, the complaints are also able to be propagated much more quickly. Case in point – when someone uploaded a video of a FedEx delivery person throwing his fragile packages into the porch, that video was shared thousands of times over various social media platforms. Taken together, social media is a potent force to be reckoned with in a company’s public relations playbook – one that requires a different strategy than the one of yore to counteract.

For ease of discussion, I will segment my analysis of the case to distinct time periods in the life cycle of a public relations incident – pre-incident, during incident and post-incident. This allows the reader to gain a perspective on what a company should do in a situation like United Airlines was in.

Calm before the Storm

Since social media is such a powerful voice online, the attention given to it should be commensurate to its influence. In the case of United, we see that there were glaring ineffective use of social media. In July 2009, United Airlines used Twitter to only disseminate promotional messages and flight disruptions to its followers. While some followers might like the fare deals posted on its feed, United could have taken a more proactive approach on social media.  A cursory glance shows that tweets that mention a company on Twitter are usually negative. For United, this would mean complaints about delays, rude ticket agents, inept efficiency and its ilk. There was no such effort on United’s part to address these complaints. Today, the situation on the ground (pun intended) has improved drastically with United actively responding to customers’ complaints on Twitter, inviting them to message them so that they can investigate further. In one instance, someone reported an issue with the gate number on their e-ticket. United replied telling them to message them so they can ask the Mobile Apps team to rectify this. This is a step in the right direction. Moreover, most of the replies to complaints took less than an hour (minutes in fact), which is commendable. In a time-sensitive business like flights, customers expect their concerns to be addressed swiftly [1]. Customers use social media to air their complaints because it is easy and fast to do so; likewise, they expect a response to come quickly too. As can be seen, United Airlines used social media ineffectively previously.

Next, it would seem like United did not have dedicated personnel for their social media presence. From the paper, “United employees were encouraged to monitor social media for mentions of United Airlines”. Crowdsourcing was a good step by United so that each staff member has a stake in addressing issues concerning the company. This was instrumental (pun unintended) in the early spotting of Carroll’s video, and the subsequent reach out to him by the managing director of customers solutions at United. Without this policy in place, the video could have been seen only after all the mainstream media outlets have reported  on it, which could be even more disastrous. Whilst such crowdsourcing is a not a replacement for full time social media service staff, companies that opt for this route can improve on this further by providing incentives for staff to report customer incidents which are left unaddressed to the main customer service team. All in all, companies will do well to have dedicated customer service agents to address social media issues.

The Aftermath

Of course, the United debacle would not have happened had the United agent approved his claim in the first place. In this part, we take a look at how United handled the social media firestorm. Firstly, United was vague in their Twitter reply to Carroll. While this might be an off-the-cuff reply, there were no subsequent follow up on what exactly they did to “make it right”.  It was not until after they have reached out to him did they detail their poor response to his claims. Notice how Rob Bradford reached out to him. He is the managing director of customer solutions at United. What United should have done was to get the CEO of United to reach out to him instead. Since his complaints had been seen by millions of people, the CEO should have apologized, not anyone down the corporate ladder. This shows that United is not serious about the matter. Also, it would seem that United had taken to more actively tweeting to tell people their solutions. Perhaps a better approach would be to embrace traditional media and online news sites by writing a press release.  They could also have placed a statement on their corporate website or via a shareholders’ meeting. Thirdly, the response by United was weak because they did not address any punitive actions that United would take should such an incident happen again. They only promised to use that in training materials, but failed to communicate to its customers how its customer service would be overhauled. For example, one can take a look at how Amazon does customer service. While there are customer agents at every step of the way, one can email the head of Amazon Jeff Bezos directly at his personal email – [email protected] [2] This shows sincerity in reacting to complaints. United could follow in Amazon’s footsteps if they really want to go all the way in this respect. A highly-reactive from-the-grounds-up approach would be to fire employees who lack customer service discretion. However, this has the knock-on effect of decreasing employee satisfaction so the pros and cons definitely needs to be weighed. Hence, one can see that United not only exhibited a weak response during the incident, it also failed to show its customers its sincerity in improving its services after the fact. Sometimes, from the customer’s’ point of view, education of frontline employees is not enough, they want to see a hardline stance on egregious actions by employees.



In conclusion, United’s social media action plan seemed to have improved since the article was written. The key points to take away from this is that companies should use social media to not only produce content, but also consume feedback from its social media followers. Also, they need to address such feedback promptly, with dedicated personnel to handle such matters, rather than delegating it to everyone. If a public relations disaster would occur online, companies should get their top guy to address the issue personally, especially after it has blown up to such proportion. In communicating to the public, companies should demonstrate sincerity in changing their practices by thinking from the customer’s perspective. The best solutions are always to involve the customer experience personally – for example, the ability for customers to contact the CEO directly. Strategies like educating customer service employees are likely to be seen as impersonal since customers are not really privy to any improvements behind the scenes.


  1. http://www.convinceandconvert.com/social-media-research/42-percent-of-consumers-complaining-in-social-media-expect-60-minute-response-time/
  2. http://gizmodo.com/jeff-bezos-if-you-have-a-problem-with-amazon-email-me-1724561248

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