United Breaks Guitars: Strategies for Avoiding a PR Crisis

Brands can’t always avoid a controversy, but they can control their response. Here are seven ways to minimize the impact of a PR crisis — or avoid one altogether.

In 2008, singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s United flight had just landed when he heard a passenger behind him say, “My God! They’re throwing guitars out there.”

Carroll looked out his window and saw baggage handlers hurling his band’s guitar cases through the air. When he retrieved his luggage, he discovered that the neck of his $3,5000 Taylor guitar had been snapped.

What followed was a nearly year-long saga of false starts, dead ends and unsympathetic corporate policies.

United denied his initial claim on the grounds that he waited more than 24 hours to file it. Follow-up efforts went nowhere fast. Finally, he suggested that United give him $1,200 in flight vouchers to cover the repair costs. That, too, was rebuffed.

Out of options, Carroll wrote a song about his experience and posted it on YouTube. Part catharsis, part attempt to strike back at the airline, “United Breaks Guitars” quickly went viral, amassing more than 3 million views in the first 10 days.

Almost overnight, Carroll and his broken guitar become a national sensation. He appeared on CNN and The View. Within a week, the airline’s share price dropped nearly 10 percent, costing shareholders nearly $180 million.

Under intense pressure, United finally relented and offered to reimburse Carroll. He declined, asking them to donate the money to charity instead.

A Better Response: Starbucks Finds Itself Steeped in Controversy

Earlier this year, Starbucks’ reputation took a massive hit after two black men were arrested while waiting for a colleague at a store in downtown Philadelphia. The location’s manager called police after the men sat down at a table and didn’t order anything.

The arrest scene was captured on video and quickly went viral.

In the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the incident galvanized people who saw it as yet another example of racial bias in America. Protestors descended on store locations across the country as Starbucks scrambled to minimize the fallout.


Not ideally, at first. The coffee giant’s initial response was vague and glossed over the issue (race) at the heart of the controversy. It read, in full:

“We apologize to the two individuals and our customers and are disappointed this led to an arrest. We take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores. We are reviewing our policies and will continue to engage with the community and the police department to try to ensure these types of situations never happen in any of our stores.”

No mention of race. No discussion of solutions or next steps. Just a tepid acknowledgement that somethingwent wrong and an ever-so-slight shifting of blame onto the police department.

After being roundly criticized, Starbucks took a more proactive approach to damage control. The company bucked convention and freely admitted wrongdoing. CEO Kevin Johnson posted an apology video where he took responsibility for the incident, describing it as nothing but reprehensible.

In addition, the company:

  • Closed all 8,000 company-owned stores for an afternoon to hold racial bias training.
  • Developed a series of training materials, group workbooks and videos around racial bias in the workplace.
  • Four days after the event, Johnson sat down with the two men and personally apologized.

Starbucks’ response to the incident was widely celebrated by crisis management experts, who called the decision to close its stores for an afternoon a “courageous,” “genius” and “game-changing” move. As for the estimated $12 million in lost sales? A relatively minor loss for a company that reported $22.4 billion in revenue in 2017.

How Can You Avoid a PR Crisis?

Preparing a crisis plan is one of the most effective ways to prevent a product or customer service issue from spiraling into a full-blown PR crisis.

A crisis plan is a process- and issues-focused document that involves all key areas of your company, from the C-suite to legal, customer service, operations, marketing and HR. It should include answers to the fundamental questions of “what could go wrong?” and “how should we react?”

Most crisis plans never get used, but you should always have one at the ready.

In addition to developing a crisis plan, here are six other ways to minimize the impact of a PR crisis — or avoid one altogether:

  1. Promote a customer-first approach: Implementing a company-wide culture that prioritizes can help employees know how to respond to customer complaints and concerns. On the United flight, Carroll told flight attendants what was happening. They said nothing could be done. He spoke to customer service agents on the phone. He sent countless emails. Each time, the response was a clear and resounding “not my problem.” If one person had flagged the claim instead of defaulting to a corporate policy that was not customer-focused, the crisis would have been nipped in the bud.
  2. Marshal the involvement of any external resources: Crisis management should not exist in a vacuum. Enlist the help of PR agencies, law firms and government bodies.
  3. Respond to internal and external stakeholders within 24 hours: If the problem becomes public, your response must be private and Use all available communication channels, including press, advertising, social media and more.
  4. Follow through quickly: If something goes wrong, accept responsibility and make it right as soon as possible. When JetBlue had thousands of flights canceled or delayed in 2007 after a massive winter storm, the airline immediately offered varying levels of compensation to affected passengers and issued a Customer Bill of Rights within a day of normal service resuming.
  5. Leverage your efforts to make amends: In 1996, a deadly strain of E. coli was traced back to unpasteurized juice maker Odwalla. Initial coverage of the outbreak focused on two key areas – the victims and previous decisions by the company to prioritize taste over customer safety. By apologizing to victims, settling lawsuits and implementing new safety measures, Odwalla was able to shift the conversation onto the company’s response. While it didn’t erase the devastation of the damage — nothing can — it probably saved the company.
  6. Conduct a post-mortem: Conduct an honest post-crisis evaluation and implement needed improvements to avoid a repeat of the problem.

Of course, any crisis plan must be customized to the unique needs of your organization. At Karbo Communications, we work with clients to drive crisis responses from the initial strategy meetings to the development and execution of a plan. Prevention is critical.