United Airlines Suffers PR Loss Essay

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United PR Disaster

Public relations is a very important and significant part of any company's strategic outlook. The larger the company, and the more exposed to the public the more that these practices will impact on achieving a competitive advantage within any given industry The airlines industry is a special case all in its own, making United Airlines' problem with Dave Carroll a worthwhile investigation into the subject.

Mr. Carroll, a passenger on a United Flight, realized that during his flight his expensive guitar was broken en route. Mr. Carroll, a professional musician, eventually followed protocol to receive compensation for his loss. When United did not honor Carroll's request he took it upon himself to right the situation.

Using his talents as a songwriter he penned a targeted song entilteld "United Breaks Guitars" is an interesting demonstration of how public relations (PR) can help or hurt a company. This story focuses around a passengers' negative experience with United Airlines. Carroll's expensive guitar was broken by United Airlines and when an unsatisfactory result came about, he decided to take matters into his own hands against the huge airline company and wrote a song demonizing the customer service of the company.

Carroll, a professional and touring musician, wrote and performed a song entitled "United Breaks Guitars" to exact revenge on the company for not answering his demands. He also released a video on YouTube to help promote the song and humiliate the company. The song's main theme documented the seemingly inhuman treatment that he received dealing with the company. Carroll's song soon became a hit and many followers took to his anthem as a giant public relations disaster began to brew for United.

When all the dust settled, United Airlines suffered great public relations losses, however, many valuable lessons can be taken away from this case study. Most importantly, the power of the individual consumer in this age of rapid consumerism must be taken into more serious consideration. Large and powerful companies must be aware that their impact on the public is greater than they would perceived and that this relationship with the public must be kept in balance. What is obvious is the dependence upon leadership and strategic outlooks which may provide the correct and ample guidance in an effective, economic and efficient organization.


The "United Breaks Guitar" public relations difficulty for United Airlines gives the rest of the business world many learning points and issues in understanding the significance of information, presentation and leadership abilities. Public relations is a very complicated and fascinating section of any public or large organization who must rely on their ability to communicate effectively with the public at large on important issues that relate to the business. Public relations is a mental process that uses psychology and technique to effectively brainwash those who consent to such attempts.

United was threatened because they failed to address a simple plea. This problem turned into a great mess due to the inability to understand the problem at the beginning of the issue. Just like in most PR cases, things will not improve until they are addressed at the core of the issue. United's first big issue was ignoring what Carroll had to say at first. This approach may work in most cases, but the one time it does not may prove to be disastrous.

At the heart of public relations is the willingness and ability in serving the customer. The ability to have a strong relationship with customers, especially in a service industry such as air travel, will prevent these mishaps. Tran (2009) suggested that "United, which has seen its share price tumble, could have spared itself this public relations humiliation if it had followed its own policy on customer service. What is most disturbing is that Carroll's pleas were continually ignored after he was willing to compromise on the situation. United would not have suffered that much if they had simply replaced the guitar or paid for its repair. Instead they agitated a customer to action that would eventually cost the company millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of time that could have been better spent on improving the company." Public relations management must be kept as a significant issue in companies and organizations such as United Airlines.


The root causes of the mess that resulted in this case can be summed up in a few different approaches. The size of United Airlines must be first addressed, as this is the most obvious and glaring component of the equation. Tens of thousands of people work for this gigantic company all with some self-interest or another. Companies of this size can afford to cut corners in some instances where customer service is involved. It makes good business sense to do so as profits can rise and competitive advantage can be earned when this strategy is effectively applied.

Standardization is an automatic response to help minimize costs and thinking time. Standardization is not perfect however and outliers are certain to occur. By applying a one size fits all response in customer service relations, United will most always win out due to the seemingly overwhelming trouble it is to attract decent service from such a large company. But in Carroll's case he became an exception to the rule and exposed the weaknesses in United's strategic approach as the company appeared to lose millions of dollars in profits and became a laughing stock around the digital community.

Shawney (2009) explained the root causes of this failure when he wrote "What can you learn from this great David vs. Goliath story that will help your business? Know this: Consumers will talk. And with the power of social media, their voice is louder than ever before. You can't stop the chatter, but you can have some control over whether they're saying good things or bad things. Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quickly right wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control. Carroll gave United every chance. When, after nine months of calls and emails, United finally shut the door on his communications, he wrote them one last time, telling them of his plan to write three songs, video them, and post them on YouTube."

Flight is an awesome and incredibly convenient technology that is controlled by relatively few. Piloting oneself is not yet an option in today's world, so society relies upon others for this luxury. As a result customer service can be realistically avoided as a top priority in some business models with some success. The security and privacy issues that accompany commercial air travel in this day and age shows the disdain that the industry has for their customers an another level. Carroll's response is more about just about a broken guitar, it is about systematic frustration that permeates the entire industry.

To many there is little difference between United Airlines and many of their competitors. United just was slightly unlucky that Carroll rode on their plan and not another's. In other words' the public relations gains and losses are usually felt on an industry wide basis, and this is a collective problem for almost all airline companies seeking to maintain a positive relationship with their customer base.

Decision Criteria

A good decision requires a logical approach to this problem. The criteria that makes the decision process works in this situation will require a holistic and balanced approach that may take a new and novel approach to pull off in any successful matter. What is most important however is that any adjustment that is made in the customer service approach must be constantly and consistently aligned with the greater strategic approach. Leadership is responsible for laying out the objectives that serve as guideposts for the entire organizational effort.

In determining what alterations need to be made certain questions need to be answered:

Who benefits from this action ?

What are the main hurdles to overcome ?

What happens if we do nothing ?

What is the best and worst outcomes of this situation

What risks are involved ?

Only then can criteria evolve and become realistic and tangible objectives that can feed and support the large strategic goals that appear to be so important and vital in leading and demonstrating the ability to change.


Alternative #1: Do nothing. If this should happen again silence may be an effective weapon in combating this effort. By addressing it gives it credence and value. In some cases it may die down rather quickly just by ignoring the problem. There is a high level of risk involved in such an action is should only be employed when risk is minimal.

Alternative #2: Immediate Response Teams. Customer service must be prepared to handle situations like this quickly and efficiently. Customer service representatives should be rewarded for minimizing damage in these instances as well. By creating designated employees and managers to such pressing events would have prevented Dave Carroll from causing so much damage…[continue]

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