Taming theSocial Media Beast in the Midst of a Crisis

By now everyone in PR knows a crisis can be just 140 characters away. They also know social media requires the same thing as a successful face-to-face conversation: listening, and earnest interaction. Among the latest to learn this lesson: the customer service executives at United Airlines. There, the PR team caught wind of a customer service issue gone wrong (in the form of a musician’s guitar being broken at the hands of baggage handlers) long after it had developed into an unpleasant online event, complete with musical accompaniment.

Consumers have found the Internet to be a more effective venue for resolving customer service issues than customer service departments themselves. As such, corporate PR teams must make it a habit to examine pending customer complaints.

Also, if they screw up—and who doesn’t now and then?—they must admit it publicly, make restitution where possible and never, ever hide. And PR execs don’t even have to tweet on Twitter or fess up on Facebook; they can just use their own Web sites. For example, last November, when Motrin’s management apologized for a baby-wearing advertisement that offended mommies everywhere, they simply posted the notice on their Web site, and social networks did the rest.

Thus far, United has failed to make a clear apology for throwing Dave Carroll’s guitar. Even the donation the airline made to the Monk Foundation is not mentioned on its Web site—not even in their “Press Releases” section. This undermines the sincerity of the gesture, and is why people are now referring to it as hush money.

To avoid this digital downfall, communications executives should consider the following tips for resolving customer complaints—and remember, success requires taking all three steps:

1. Admit you’re wrong: United still hasn’t done this explicitly. This allows guitar owner Dave Carroll to legitimately prolong his beef with the company.

2. Stop doing the wrong thing: United has yet to make any changes to baggage handling procedures.

3. Make a material gesture of apology: United’s donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute satisfies this, but it won’t be enough.

United may think that people consider only price when choosing an airline today. Maybe that is still true, but just consider that, for now, United’s corporate jingle is not “It’s Time to Fly,” it’s “United Breaks Guitars.”