Recently I attended a presentation by a London law firm about social media and related legal issues. Turning to the internet for a funny and memorable example of how social media can clobber a company, the lawyers clicked on the YouTube clip from Dave Carroll, United Breaks Guitars.
Carroll’s sing song customer complaint has become a staple example, understandably so given the catchy tune, fun video and huge press coverage it got. But over two years on from it catching our attention, what are the real lessons from Dave Carroll’s broken Taylor guitar?
You do not have to be that much of a sceptic to pause for thought, reflect on how exceptional the Carroll video has turned out to be. It was not so much the first of a flood of similar high profile videos that ended up headlining the television news over the subsequent years but rather one of the rare exceptions. Even Carroll’s two follow-up songs had only a fraction of the viewership or impact.
Nor is that pattern the exception. Other high profile examples of video clips breaking new ground in other fields have also been followed by a trickle rather than a flood – witness how little successful ‘gotcha’ political citizen journalism there has been seen the Macaca moment video grabbed its headlines.
These high profile stories that garner huge traffic online and significant knock-on coverage in traditional media, taking it to audiences that dwarf the original online ones, are the rare exception. That they can happen, potentially to disastrous degrees, is a good reason to think, plan and react – just as any good business has a contingency plan for the rare but potentially catastrophic disaster.
However, it also means that many of the lessons that apply to more regular day in, day out communications work are more subtle than the headline grabbing concern about how a YouTube film could kill your firm overnight.
One is that even if the original social media audience is small, the existence of some sort of happening on it can be a trigger for wider or more sustained media coverage, especially if a high profile figure is involved and uses social media to offer up information to expand and liven up media reports.
I have, for example, twice been recently delayed by Qantas airline problems – one the after-effect of an engine failure meaning the plane I was due to fly on was not in the right continent and one due to a global computer failure meaning they could not get flight information to their planes. Neither attracted much in the way of attention, but the original engine failure that caused my problem did get mass media attention – because Stephen Fry was on that flight and tweeted, both catching the attention of journalists and providing them with extra colour for their stories which were therefore longer and more prominent.
Far more people were affected by the global computer failure than by Stephen Fry’s incident, but it did not get the same attention as my Twitter audience is hardly in his class.
One thing Qantas did get right was the use of its own social media channels, having learnt the lesson from a year before when another engine failure saw people taking to the internet to find out what was going on – and finding sales and marketing information rather than customer service and reassurance. Qantas was using its digital channel for one purpose; the public wanted something else.
In such a situation, as not only Qantas but Eurostar have found out, the public wins out. The question is simply how long a firm will take the hit to its reputation before accepting reality.
For someone on the frontline in a press office when a story hits, it can certainly feel that stories move at great speed, continually eluding attempts to get on top of them. However, scratch under the surface and there are often periods of time when the story is in fact spreading slowly. In Dave Carroll’s case, for example, it took a remarkable 17 days for the United Breaks Guitars story to cross the Atlantic. That is still news moving at the speed of a steamship, not the internet.
The pause should have given United Airlines times to get their own reaction out so that the story spread could have been about how well they were handling a problem. That was a lesson Dominos learnt well with a swift response, online and offline, to its 2009 disaster of disgusting employees being stupid enough to film their antics for YouTube. United did not get it right, hindered in particular by United Airline’s failure to get the details of its social media approach right.
The penalty for failing to respond is also now all the greater, because rather than today’s news disappearing into tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, negative stories hang around online and accessible for years to come. Go to YouTube, search for "United Airlines" and what frequently comes up at the top of the search results, more than two years on? Dave Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars. And why did a pair of lawyers giving a presentation to a communications group choose to name United Airlines rather than any one of dozens of other examples of customer problems? Because they could readily point to online material.
Dave Carroll may have long since moved on to other songs and projects but audiences keep on coming back to the airline’s failures.
This post first appeared on the Huffington Post.