Communicator of the Year Epic Fail

UPDATE:  United, in an attempt to stem the continued negative response to the initial situation on Flight 3411 on April 9th, had CEO Oscar Munoz on Good Morning America, to discuss the situation. This was a full day after the company stock was down nearly half a billion dollars in the market, and two earlier attempts to address the situation fell very flat.

When the phrase ‘beloved brand’ is presented – United Airlines is not what comes to mind. I know business travelers who would say  it is the antithesis of beloved. The brand sometimes can’t get out of it’s own way and Sunday was the latest incident to add to this perception.

Yesterday, [Monday April 10th] CEO Oscar Munoz responded to a very public situation in which corporate policy (backed by FAA regulations) failed in a big way. The opportunity was prime for the leader to face the situation and acknowledge that change was needed, but instead chose to stand behind corporate policy. The public backlash has hit United, as you would expect but also PRWeek, who, named Oscar Munoz as Communicator of the Year.

“Munoz has shown himself to be a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications. His ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline, and get them to rally behind it, is a key reason PRWeek named him 2017 Communicator of the Year.“

According to an CNBC report the United CEO communicated to his employees yesterday- here are the highlights:

  • In an email to employees, United CEO Oscar Munoz addressed an incident in which an overbooked passenger had to be forcibly removed from a United plane.
  • Passenger described as “disruptive and belligerent.”
  • Munoz: “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

The court of public opinion however, is not standing behind United, it’s employees or it’s CEO.

Here is a very simplified version of what happened. For more detail read it here.

  • United overbooked a flight to Louisville on Sunday evening.
  • United need to fly 4 employees to Louisville on that flight and was counting on open seats to accommodate this business need.
  • United employees followed established procedures to request 4 people voluntarily disembark for a travel voucher. No one volunteered.
  • United employees then followed established procedures to randomly remove paying customers.
  • When one randomly selected passenger refused, he was as forcibly removed.

What is wrong with this picture?

  • Employees followed procedure. Who can fault them for that? No one.
  • Authorities followed procedure. Who can fault them for that? No one. Although there are reports that excessive force may have been used and is being investigated.
  • Customers followed procedure. Who can fault them for that? No one…err well United’s policies do.

Here is the big problem: A policy put employees, authorities and customers all at risk. Policies that create tension need to be evaluated for each of these groups but also for the brand reputation. (Need to move employees? Block off the number of seats required – seems simple right?)

The US Department of Transportation does give airlines the right to deny boarding voluntarily or involuntarily. Technically United was well within the law to remove anyone from the flight. Here is where common sense and empowerment could have turned this situation into a non-situation and even employee recognition from the public.

Communicating For The Win!

Here is how Munoz could have handled this situation and stand behind his employees at the same time.

  • Acknowledge the situation for what is was. Enforcement of a preexisting policy. – He did this. Plus 1
  • Acknowledge the employees for performing as the company requires. – He did this. Plus 1
  • Acknowledge the policy needs to be changed to avoid creating confrontation with customers who had purchased their tickets as allowed by the airline. – He did not do this. Minus 3. Minus  public reputation.


  • Acknowledge that while this policy is not viewed favorably the brand will setup safeguards to ensure customers aren’t seated before they are asked to leave the plan due to poor planning.

He got two out of three, but number three is the one thing that ties it all together.

Will I personally ever choose to fly United. Nope. Never. My own experiences with the company were always subpar.

Have I ever been on an overbooked flight? Yes. Have I taken a voucher, Yes.

Have I ever refused to volunteer? Yes and I was not, repeat not, removed nor was any other passenger – thank you Southwest.


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