Broken Guitars and Fat Cats: Customer Service Lessons from Airlines Industry’s PR Disasters

Ask any expert about the impacts social media has had on public relations, big brands or customer service. Chances are the answer you’ll get will include at least one reference to the public relations disaster that befall United Airlines in 2009.

United Breaks Guitars

The story began in early 2008 when Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, had his pricey guitar damaged by United Airlines baggage handlers. After speaking to dozens customer service representatives and failing to get the company to pay the $1,200 repair cost, Carroll wrote a song about his experience, recorded a video to go along with the song, and uploaded it on YouTube.

Following a year of unsuccessful attempts to get United Airlines to compensate him for a damaged guitar, Dave Carroll made this video in 2009. As of this writing, the video has been watched more than 19.5 million times.

The video, United Breaks Guitars, quickly went viral, and the story was picked up and amplified by mainstream media. Carroll gave hundreds of interviews, telling everyone who cared to listen about his experience. The United Airlines’ executives tried to minimize the damage to the company’s reputation by finally agreeing to compensate the musician, but their efforts were too late. According to BBC, the airline’s share price dropped 10 percent shortly after Carroll’s video went viral.

It is much harder to estimate the longer-term damage that the incident has had on United Airlines’ brand. As for other big international brands, particularly in the airlines industry, they must have learnt that in the age of social media, negative customer experience can quickly escalate into a major PR disaster.

Aeroflot’s Fat-Cat Debacle

Well, the lesson appears to have been lost on Russia’s largest airline, Aeroflot. Over the last weeks, the company has experienced a public relations fiasco comparable to that of United Airlines a decade ago.

On October 30, Mikhail Galin missed his connecting flight in Moscow after Aeroflot check-in staff said his cat, Victor, was too heavy to travel in the cabin of the aircraft with him. The airline insisted that pets heavier than eight kilograms had to travel in the luggage hold. Galin’s furry friend was two kilograms above the limit. As the man later explained [ru] on Facebook, Victor was distraught by the first leg of the journey, a four-hour flight from Riga, Latvia’s capital, to Moscow. He feared that an eight-hour flight in the cargo hold to Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, would severely traumatize the cat.

Galin came up with an ingenious plan to get Victor accepted in the aircraft cabin. He posted the cat’s picture on Facebook and asked his friends to help him find Victor’s look-alike in Moscow. As soon as a similar looking but slimmer cat was found, Galin purchased a ticket to Vladivostok and had Aeroflot’s check-in staff weigh Victor’s look-alike and confirm that the pet was fit to travel in the cabin. Once Galin received his boarding pass, he parted with the impostor and his owner, and boarded the plane.

Galin shared this photograph of his overweight cat, Viktor, on Facebook soon after pulling his now famous cat-swap trick and boarding a plane.

As Galin and Victor made it safely to Vladivostok, their story was widely shared and discussed on social media. Given the special status cats enjoy on the Internet as well as the fact that an estimated six out of 10 Russians own at least one cat, reactions to Galin’s cunning albeit legally shady scheme to ensure his cat travelled with comfort were overwhelmingly jubilant.

However, the mood was not shared by Aeroflot’s executives. Once the story was brought to their attention, they stripped Galin of his frequent flier status and cancelled all air miles that he had accumulated. The company issued a statement explaining its pet travel policies and accusing Galin of “deliberate violation” of these rules.

Aeroflot’s reaction sparked a huge social media outcry in Russia. Memes ridiculing Aeroflot’s rigid policies and supporting Galin took the country’s social media by storm (some of the best memes can be viewed here and here). Celebrities, athletes and politicians also weighed in, boycotting the company and sharing messages with hashtags that could be roughly translated as “pets are not luggage”, “let Viktor fly” and “we are all the fat cat”. Other airlines scored PR points against Aeroflot by offering Galin a special “feline VIP” frequent flier status. The man was also bombarded by offers of free cat food, spa treatments for Viktor, free stays in pet-friendly hotels and movie vouchers. The story became so big that even the country’s president was asked to comment on it.

This caricature created by Sergey Elkin was shared by Radio Svoboda. In the image, an Aeroflot plane is depicted as chasing and barking at a fat cat. Source: Radio Svoboda on Twitter.

Just like United Airlines did a decade ago, the Russian airline had a quick change of heart, apologizing for its rash response and offering [ru] Galin the company’s shares as compensation. And just as was the case with United Airlines, the move came too late to stop the wave of negative publicity and social media ridicule from causing serious damage to Aeroflot’s brand.

Lessons for Social Media and Customer Service Teams

The PR disasters experienced by United Airlines and Aeroflot will not prevent mishaps from happening. Baggage handlers will inevitably continue damaging baggage, while overworked and distressed check-in staff will continue alienating customers.

What these two fiascos should change, however, is the way big brands, both in the airlines industry and elsewhere, handle customer feedback on social media.

Build relationships

In the age of social media, companies should focus on building relationships with their customers and personalizing these relationships wherever possible. This approach calls for a departure from standard operating procedures that require customer service staff to act within the rigid boundaries of company policies, rules and standards. In other words, companies need to ensure that when their staff communicates to customers, particularly those with grievances, they sound like humans capable of empathy and emotion, rather than impassionate bureaucrats. As Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, a customer service and social media expert at Forrester Research suggests, brands should be aware of the “frustration customers feel with companies that act like monolithic monsters”.

This shift requires that companies invest in training their staff in positive customer service and empower them to make on-the-spot decisions that make customers happy, even if these decision do not always align to policies and rules. Or, as John Deighton, Professor at Harvard Business School puts it, brands “need to cultivate good judgement and free their employees to use it”.

Engage online

When customers share stories of poor customer service on social media, companies should listen to and engage in these conversations before they get out of hand. Such engagement should aim at turning negative customer service experience into positive experience, while ensuring that this transformation is interesting enough for social media audiences to tune in.

For instance, management expert Bart Perkins suggests that instead of trying to buy off Dave Carroll after his video got viral, United Airlines could have mitigated the impact of the consequent PR disaster, while also scoring some positive publicity points, by employing the same tools that Carroll had used, namely creativity and humour. They could, for example, respond with a funny video of their own. They could also organize a content for best sung responses to Carroll and share the winning songs online. Perkins urges companies to remember that when a story that can potentially affect their brand is unfolding online, “by choosing not to engage, they are letting the opponent win all the debate points.”

Focus on the positive

Over the longer term, companies should focus proactively on creating positive customer experience and promoting positive offline experiences online. Negative stories are not likely to develop into PR calamities when they involve companies that are generally known to deliver good service. Besides, as customer experience expert Blake Morgan argues, companies that focus on the positive inadvertently encourage their customers to do the same.

I understand that while building relationships, engaging online and focusing on the positive should set companies on a good start, it is not enough to help them promote their brand and address negative publicity online. What else should companies do to adapt their customer service and public relations to the realities of the world increasingly saturated with social media? Do you know any companies that have successfully completed this transformation?

COM0014- Blog #4; B2C social media platforms

Canva - null-2According to, “The term business-to-consumer (B2C) refers to the process of selling products and services directly between consumers who are the end-users of its products or services. Most companies that sell directly to consumers can be referred to as B2C companies. 

B2C became immensely popular during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s when it was mainly used to refer to online retailers who sold products and services to consumers through the Internet”  

Canva - Person Shopping Online Using a CellphoneIn this ERA of Digital world, many consumers prefer to shop online vs. going through traditional mall shopping. Do you buy products online? If so, why? Is it because it is cheaper, convenient or any other reason? How do you know about special promotions?  

Companies that rely honline shopping 2eavily on B2C model need to maintain a healthy relationship with their customers. With invention of social media platforms, it has become much easier for companies to connect with their customers and gently remind them about promotions and new products. How many times have you seen pop up ads on these social media platforms? I bet you will answer, “many times! 

Canva - nullOne company that stands out to me is Air Canada. I highly believe that they are connecting and targeting their audience well. They are regularly monitoring their social media platforms and building trust by responding in a timely fashion. They are beautifully showcasing their destinations, airplanes, food and experiences of other travelers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They also use these platforms for telling their audience about special promotions to various destinations. At times, on these platforms they also showcase their employees- flight attendants and pilots and ground staff. 

From a personal point of view, I have had great interactions on Social media platforms with Air Canada. I remember once I was checking into a flight and I was flying business class from Ottawa Airport. The check-in agent was not friendly nor was aware of perks of flying business class as she was replacing someone who went on break. I tweeted Air Canada while agent was checking me with my frustration and disappointment and while I made to security in less than 5 minutes, I had a reply from Air Canada. On other occasion, I have also got hold of someone faster on social media than being on hold for over 30 minutes. I think Air Canada has been maintaining their social media platforms well and many other organizations should learn them now. Have you ever had an experience with Air Canada through Social Media? If so, were you satisfied? 

Canva - null-3


(Source of photos:

Technology can’t replace the human touch

Everywhere you go, you see technology making so much advancement and replacing some human jobs with Artifical Intelligence (AI). According to Wikipedia, “Artificial intelligence (AI, also machine intelligenceMI) is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence (NI) displayed by humans and other animals. Colloquially, the term “artificial intelligence” is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving”



My majority of experience has been working in hospitality. Though, I would say that these kiosks are certainly a great invention for our industry, but it totally depends on customer to customer. For many guests who do not wish to stand in line or do not want the human contact would definitely make the most use of it. Like at airports, I see many travelers using and agents are pushing travelers to use and check-in using the kiosk. Whereas, certainly in my case I like and enjoy the human touch and most of times I choose to go see an agent. I would also argue that these kiosks are also removing the human touch from providing personalized service to guests. Like at many hotels, introduction of Ipads in the room where the guest just needs to touch and service would be delivered. They do not need to call reception desk and talk to a live person. I think with the introduction of new technology like self-service kiosks we are getting away from the human touch from providing exceptional great customer service! But not everyone is going to want this kind of experience. Some people like to be welcomed by a person, who not only takes the order, but answers questions about the hotel and brings you your extra towels, coffee etc.



While a machine can perform a given task, often more efficiently than we can, what it lacks is the artistry in the activity, that uniquely human ability to cater to the needs of the individual. The protocol may suggest one approach, but a person who is good at their job understands when to adjust and the subtleties that are required.

I would also argue that how can you create customer loyalty without human touch specially for a service-based industry? If you are a guest staying at hotel, you check in yourself using an app, check-out using an app and never see an agent. From a hotel’s perspective how would they know whether you enjoyed your stay at the hotel or not? If something was not satisfactory, how would hotel staff know to resolve the issue?

I recently travelled to overseas from Ottawa International Airport and was amazed to see self-check in kiosks at Airport and how Air Canada’s agents are pushing travelers to use those machines. Have you been to Ottawa Airport recently and tried using those machines?




My experience was bit frustrating as I tried checking myself in using that kiosk, but it failed to print me baggage tags, for which I had to go see an Agent. The lineup for seeing an agent was long as there were only two agents working. After being in line for over 40 minutes, I went to see an agent and when asked, agent replied, “These AI machines are not that smart” as they needed to verify my visa for country I was travelling. I told her then why push international travelers to use that kiosk when it is bound to fail and frustrate guest.

Do you prefer using technology or do you prefer the human touch?

Facebook: Technology can’t replace the human touch. Read here:

Twitter: Do you think #Technology can replace #human #touch. Read here:


COM0014 Blog # 4 – B2C Case Study – Tangerine Bank


Tangerine Bank is a good example of a business doing B2C transactions right on social media. Tangerine prides itself on being a bank for the people and saving them money. Tangerine does a great job of keeping that theme throughout their social media channels. For the sake of this blog, I will just be looking at Twitter and Facebook.

On Twitter, they post tweets and articles about saving money, as well as sending out tweets that link their great products and services with saving their customers money. They also do a good job of interacting with their customers by retweeting customer posts about the awesome service they received from Tangerine, or a product that helped them save money.

Tweet Tangerine

An example of Tangerine interacting with their customers.

Tangerine continues their theme of saving their customers money on Facebook. Their posts are very similar to the information they post on Twitter but with more interaction with their customers. They are very quick to respond and offer advice or help to their customers who are looking for it.

Facebook Tangerine

Tangerine interacting with their customers on Facebook.

Tangerine does a great job of posting information for their consumers, without always looking like they are selling a product or service. By sharing tweets and posts about money saving tips and how to budget, and then connecting it to a Tangerine product, they are marketing their product effectively. They understand who their audience is and what they are looking for in a product. They make sure that they have high quality interactions with their customers on all their social media channels.

COM0011 Blog #6 – I’m having a problem with my #account…

Many companies already understand the advantages of social media to their brand,  but how many are now embracing social media for other aspects of their business?

Social media and customer service is now something that goes hand in hand, however that never used to be the case. If someone had a problem with a company, service or product they would need to stand in a line or call in and be another number. Now customers simply need to head to Twitter or Facebook to lodge their complaint.

Some may think that this is great news for companies, and for the most part it is but as this video will explain there are some downsides to customer service on social media.

There are a number of companies that are already using social media for their  customer service. WestJet just recently announced that they will be offering 24 hour customer service through their social media channels. Since social media is all about listening to what your audience wants, WestJet learnt quickly that they needed to evolve to meet their customers needs. They know that their audience wants to be able to tweet their questions and complaints and hear back quickly so they started to offer it. I’m sure more and more companies will follow suit.

Would you prefer to ask a question over a tweet or over the phone? Do you think customer service over social media is a good thing?

COM0014 Post #6 – My Greatest Fear

I don’t like to think about my fears let alone my greatest fear. But there are times when you must confront your greatest fears and that time is now. I fear that one day the budget will overpower customer service at Algonquin College, more specifically Algonquin College, Pembroke Campus, where I have the privileged of working.


I love the fact that I get to work at a small campus where we have the opportunity to have personal and meaningful relationships with our students. In my current position, I get to have all these personal touch points in a given year:

  • Help future students learn more about the fantastic programs we offer.
  • Council students at a very sensitive time, when they are  mapping out their financial plan and when they are in a budgeting crisis even.
  • Be their cheerleader when they are working on an exciting project or community activity.
  • Usher graduates  to their futures when they cross the convocation stage.
  • Keep in touch with alumnus and share they successes.

So Happy

That right folks – I get to do all these things and I love it. So, back to my greatest fear. I fear that at some point in my career with the Pembroke Campus, that I won’t be able to commit the time necessary to culture and foster these relationship formed under the guise of customer service. Time is money and with less and less provincial funding I fear that creative budgeting will mean that customer service will not longer be a priority.

My fear is managed by the fact that my colleagues, our managers and our dean hold customer service as priority number one on campus and this is another reason why I love working at the Pembroke Campus of Algonquin College. Rather than oppressing my fear I live by the words of Chuck Palahnuik, ” Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there.”

What is your greatest fear and how do you deal with it?

Social Media: Go on, tell us how you really feel!

After watching the United Breaks Guitars video, I had to laugh. Not because almost anything can be turned in to a Country song, but because I can proudly say I’m guilty of doing something similar (using social media to give “feedback” – not breaking someone’s guitar). I’ve had a few very poor customer service experiences and although I typically keep my complaints to myself, I felt inclined to publicly complain to the world – or in this case, the Twitterverse. And guess what… it worked!


Social media has become the new “tell us how we’re doing” card. In the above example, I was quite pleased with the technical support I received shortly after my Tweet. I should also mention that I had tried calling the support line and even went to the store where I had bought my phone but was told there was nothing they could do. Twitter was my last resort – perhaps it should have been my first.

My point is that consumers should not be afraid to use social media to their advantage. Did you just receive terrible customer service while buying that new pair of jeans? Was the teen working at the cash register at the grocery store too busy texting to give you the receipt? In my opinion, if that business has made themselves accessible on social media – customers have the right to reach out to them!

Do I dream of a news feed full of negativity and comments bashing the local buffet restaurant? Absolutely not. In fact, on the flip side, I feel strongly about tagging businesses in positive comments as well!


As customers and consumers, we have the right to share our feedback, rave about great experiences or rant about the not so pleasant ones. Right?!

COMM0015: Assignment 5: Event Participation

This past Thursday, December 5 I had the opportunity to attend the webinar “Customer Service for the New Customer: Transitioning to Real-Time Service Delivery” hosted by   With three extremely knowledgeable, experienced and engaging members of the panel I took away several key points and ideas to consider when thinking about social media and customer service.

Similar to many public companies my department within the municipal government has been slowly attempting to move to a new service delivery model that effectively incorporates multiple access points for our customers (web, phone and in person).  Previously our customers were often restricted to in-person access for the majority of our services with a limited number of services offered by phone.  Approximately 18 months ago we added an online application process and began to expand the services available by phone.  I chose this webinar hoping to hear more about how other organizations are approaching service delivery in the age of social media and how they are measuring success in those new areas.Panel photos and bios

The Panel

The panel consisted of Nathan Roth, lead for digital and social at Koodo Mobile, Wendy Lea, CEO, Get Satisfaction, and Frank Eliason, Director of Global Social Media at CITI.  In addition, Robin Carey, founder of Social Media Today was the panel moderator.

Key Message from the Event:

“Customer service is the new marketing.” Although I came away from this webinar with a lot of new ideas and perspectives I can’t possibly list them all in this short article.  So I am going to focus on the comment “Customer service is the new marketing” which strongly resonated with my own work experience and my experiences as a consumer.  In my position as an Evaluation Officer, I am often asked to support projects or programs on developing new performance measures or determining their level of customer service.  One constant challenge in my role is explaining to people why it is important to monitor and measure our level of customer service.  This quote will become the new opening statement to that explanation.  As discussed in the webinar, in the current age of social media that allows your customers to reach thousands of people before or immediately after leaving your office their opinions have become your company’s brand.  Research has shown that the majority of consumers are more likely to trust the opinions of strangers over company advertising.  This means every customer who accesses services from your company has more influence over your customer base than you.  The bottom line?  It doesn’t matter what your organization says or promotes if your customers online conversations are negative.

Webinar Twitter Feed

Networking Social Media Style

In addition to a significant amount of information and ideas from the webinar the concurrent conversation on twitter also provided a unique networking opportunity.  The event promoted their prearranged hash tag for participants to ask questions, post comments and interact with each other.  As a result of participating in the twitter conversation I have 12 new followers and have added 14 new individuals to my twitter feed who all work on or specialize in social media.  The webinar proved to be both a learning opportunity and a chance to build my network of social media experts.

Upcoming Opportunities

As a result of how happy I was with the information and discussion that took place during this webinar I am actually attending another session this coming Tuesday, October 10.  The upcoming webinar specifically focuses on performance measures and data collection in social media.  This topic is particularly relevant to the role I usually play in the development of new service access points or social media.  I hope to come away from that event with some new ideas and approaches to performance measurement with the context of online content and social media.

If you are interesting in hearing the discussion from this webinar or participating in future panels offers an average of two free webinars per week.  For a list of upcoming events please go to: