Consumers use social media to put pressure on brands

Canadian singer Dave Carroll became an instant hit on YouTube when he recorded and published the song “United Breaks Guitars”. The video describing how United Airlines broke his guitar, has been viewed 5.8 million times and has become a great case story for how consumers are putting pressure on businesses via social media.

To add insult to injury, apparently United once again managed to mess up a trip for Carroll. The New York Times writes that United lost Carroll’s bag on a recent trip to Denver.

In an interview, Mr. Carroll said that for more than an hour on Sunday, he was told he could not leave the international baggage claim area at Denver International Airport, where he had flown from Saskatchewan. He said he had been told to stay because his bag was delayed, not lost, and he had to be there to claim it when it came down the conveyor belt.

“I’m the only person pacing around this room,” Mr. Carroll said, recalling how he was caught between an order from United staff members to stay and collect his bag, and a federal customs official telling him he had to leave the baggage claim area. The bag never showed.

A United Airlines spokeswoman, Robin Urbanski, said, “We will fully investigate what regretfully happened.”

Social media like blogs and Twitter enable individual consumers to voice their opinions against brands and companies. From a consumer perspective I think this is mainly positive because it gives consumers more power in a relationship that previously was dominated by companies. David is closing in on Goliath. And most incidents where bloggers write really negative comments about brands, they are doing it as a last resource. They’ve tried all the normal routes for customer complaints without success and eventually make a final effort by taking their anger out on their blogs.

Norwegian blogger Vampus today blogged about the Carroll/United kerfuffle. She writes that social media can be used as black mail against politicians, businesses and organizations, but where only part of the truth is revealed. That may very well happen from time to time, which is why companies must not automatically surrender to criticism just because it is published on a blog. The customer is not always right and if you believe the blogger does not have a case, you should say so.

A terrific example of an organization that faced serious allegations from a blogger, and handled it well, is the TSA, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. In a blog post headlined “tsa agents took my son”, a blogger claims her son was taken away from her during several minutes by TSA agents at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport. But the TSA did not just apologize or admit wrong-doing just like that. Instead it investigated the accusations and published the findings on its blog, with CCTV footage and everything (first one video, then nine other from different angles), which showed that the claims were not true. As a result, the blogger backed down and apologized.

I think TSA would not have been able to respond so cleverly if it had not had a blog, so if you are looking for arguments why your organization should start a blog, that might be one. All in all, consumer complaints on blogs and other social media channels are going to increase (a new example today in Sweden from a blogger attacking the bank Nordea). Businesses need to monitor such comments and manage some, but there is no need to panic. With a decent strategy in place you can even survive an attack from a blogger.

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