The secret to avoiding a YouTube crisis – revealed!

It’s not a matter of if. It’s when. With user-generated content easier and more common than ever, it’s only a matter of time before someone in your organization does something that rubs someone (or a lot of people) the wrong way and soon millions of people are watching the travesty on YouTube.

Latest entry: United Breaks Guitars

This video, out only since Monday, already has half-a-million views, 3,200+ comments and has been picked up by several mainstream news outlets, and many bloggers are going to town on it, too. United is apparently talking to the video’s creator and trying to make things right, but I think the catchy ” ‘Cuz United breaks guitars” refrain is going to be quick to the lips of lots of passengers from now on.

There have been countless posts on how to handle reputation crises like these, so I won’t rehash some of those principles in depth (respond quickly, take it seriously, respond using the same medium by which you were attacked, etc.).

But here’s my number one observation on how to prepare your organization ahead of time for when something like this happens. Ready for it? It’s simple:

Don’t suck so much in the first place!

Typically these attacks come from people with a real bone to pick. The United Breaks Guitars guy tried for more than nine months to get his guitar fixed and was stonewalled all the way. If his claim had been honored, or if an astute United customer service rep had gone out of their way to help him, despite what “policy” and “procedure” said, there’s a much lower chance he would have made this video.

What’s more, if United was generally known for having great, attentive customer service, even if the guy had made the video there possibly would have been a group of customers who’ve had positive experiences with United who could have come out and defended the company. Instead, check out the YouTube comments. Everyone just kept piling on with their own “United sucks” stories.

What if someone had made a video like this about Zappos? Maybe Zappos lost a guy’s order or something. First, I doubt he would have been stonewalled when he called, so it probably would never get to the level of him feeling like he needed to make a music video about bad service. But if he had, Zappos would have already had a rabid community of fans in place who had received great customer service in the past and who might have been willing to defend the company.

With United, so many passengers likely had a similar negative story that it was easy for them to relate to the video and pass it along, helping it to go viral so quickly. Videos that don’t resonate with people don’t go viral. Try not to frequently give your customers reasons to create this kind of content. Even if most never will, many will read, share and comment on the content that does get created (check out Forrester’s Social Technographics Profiles for more).

Unfortunately, not a lot of “this company is so awesome and great” videos go viral (but when they do, be ready to capitalize and use it to help tell your organization’s story, the way Mayo Clinic did). But you can keep some of the negative ones at bay by not giving people a reason to make them in the first place and creating enough brand defenders that even when those videos do get made, they’ll get very little traction.

Yes, you have to manage a reputation crisis when it comes up, but shouldn’t part of preparedness include preventing those crises from ever happening in the first place?