Not that long ago, United CEO Oscar Munoz was riding high. Recently named PR Week’s Communicator of the Year, Munoz was already United CEO and was all set to step into the Chairman’s seat. Then came a series of escalating PR problems and at least one outright PR disaster. Munoz tried to apply those award-winning communication skills, but Joe and Jane Public were simply not having it.
After the Leggings Incident, which turned out to be fairly overblown. United was right back in the news when a doctor who refused to leave a flight was manhandled and dragged off a flight. Munoz was forced to respond after video of the incident hit social media, and major media ran with the story. Munoz badly bungled the response. First, he offered a party line that was clearly not the case, calling the doctor disruptive and blaming bad behavior for his ouster. The public set fire to social media, aghast at United’s “apparent disregard” for its passengers.
It took Munoz’s team three more tries to get the message on point, and the public was none too pleased with the repeated attempts. United didn’t fare any better in the eyes of the PR pros either. PRWeek editor in chief Steve Barrett blasted Munoz’s handling of the doctor dragging incident, saying:
“If PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz… In time, the episode and subsequent response will be quoted in textbooks as an example of how not to respond in a crisis.”
From “Communicator of the Year” to textbook terrible response. Not a strong endorsement. And, now it looks like even his superiors are beginning to share that opinion. United’s parent company, United Continental Holdings, said that, while Munoz will remain CEO, he will not also assume the role of Chairman, as previously promised.
The associated paperwork, of course, made no mention of the incident or its poor handling, but the message was fairly clear: “The Board believes that separating the roles of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board is the most appropriate structure at this time… Having an independent Chairman of the Board is a means to ensure that Mr. Munoz is able to more exclusively focus on his role as Chief Executive Officer.”
Even more telling, the paperwork stated that Munoz’s compensation package, going forward, will be more closely tied to customer satisfaction. At this point, that’s probably a step in the right direction.
About Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations. He is an experienced leader in the public relations industry with over 20 years of experience. Ronn Torossian has been named as Public Relations executive of the year by the American Business Awards, and has run countless award-winning Public Relations programs.
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