Speed Reads

Premature celebration

United Airlines' CEO was just recently named PR Week's 2017 Communicator of the Year

By all rights, Monday should have been a banner day for United Airlines. Just two weeks after United had mishandled a social media kerfuffle about two young teenage girls barred from boarding a plane (on "buddy passes") because they were wearing leggings, chief competitor Delta Air Lines was still working through a morass of 3,000 canceled flights, stranding or inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers as spring break travel ramped up.

Yet somehow, United made sure the only airline anybody was talking about on Monday was United, thanks to its hamfisted response to a viral video of a passenger being dragged, screaming and bloodied, off a Chicago to Louisville flight, after being bumped for United flight attendants.

United first apologized, but only for "the overbook situation," and explained that airport police had to drag a paying customer off the plane because he "refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily." It's not a good sign, public relations-wise, when the dictionary has to intervene.

United CEO Oscar Munoz next issued a short statement apologizing "for having to re-accommodate these customers," pairing that oddly cold word with a promise to urgently "work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened." He then privately assured his employees that he "emphatically" stands behind them for following "established procedures" to remove the increasingly "disruptive and belligerent" customer. The general feeling on social media is that United's mishandling of the situation will be taught as a cautionary tale in business school.

Interestingly, PR Week awarded Munoz its 2017 Communicator of the Year award just last month, lauding him as "a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications."

To be fair, given Munoz's strong backing of the United crew, a big part of the rationale for PR Week's award is that the CEO has a celebrated "ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline," curtailing "customer service problems caused by disgruntled staff that had long plagued the airline." And PR Week didn't just credit Munoz for this turnaround in morale and PR prowess: "Under Munoz's vision for the brand, the airline hired Jim Olson away from Starbucks in February 2016 as SVP of corporate communications. United also hired its first chief storyteller and MD of digital engagement, Dana Brooks Reinglass." Maybe they're on spring break.