Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

Today the news is all abuzz over United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger off of their airplane after he refused to leave. Apparently the flight was overbooked and four passengers were selected to be taken off of the flight, but one of them refused to leave. He was physically removed from the flight and the result has been twenty-four hours of bad press and plummeting stock. Presumably, this message from the CEO didn’t help matters much:

I am not a lawyer and have nothing substantive to say about the legality of the passenger’s physical removal (other than to say that I can’t imagine a more botched customer-relations moment in the history of a company).

That being said, what is it about this response from Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines that has upset people so much? What can we learn from his communication here and what do we think he may have been trying to do. Reminder that this wasn’t a reactive tweet sent out in the heat of the moment like we often see from our current Commander in Chief:

(I hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ate his Wheaties this morning. He’s going to be busy.)

What makes the statement by Oscar Munoz so bizarre is that it is a thought-out response. It has all the makings of a statement that had passed through marketing, legal and public relations. Oscar Munoz is himself an accomplished executive at public relations, having won the award for Communicator of the Year last year (thanks to CNN Money for the link). He was heralded for turning the troubled organization around and making heartfelt connections to his employees.

In fact it is this quote that jumps out at me from the award:

“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.”

Basically, he is the kind of CEO that we always write about wanting other CEOs to be, i.e. capable of leading from the bottom up.

Okay, so what is it about his message that is so upsetting? In the article from CNN Money that I cited earlier, the consensus from PR experts seems to be that the main mistake is what he specifically apologizes for:
Everything else that he says here is fine. Everything. I get that he can’t apologize for having beaten a passenger senseless (turns out that opens you up to lawsuits), but what everyone seems to be responding to is the term “re-accommodate,” which is in direct contrast to the violence that people are sharing of the video that has gone around:
 (Warning: this video contains real violence)
The absurd juxtaposition of this video with the term “re-accommodate” is what creates the sense of disconnect between the CEO and their customer base.
Why does this happen?
Well, only the people in the room know for certain why they chose that word (my money is on the lawyers), but here are some thoughts that I have for what I think happens to us in these situations.
Too many audiences:
I could almost understand this note if it were sent out to employees only. The message is that he has your back and that he supports you. I still think that it is fairly tone deaf in the position that the company policy put the employees, and that this whole mess could have been avoided with some forethought. (Example: “Hey, what do we do if someone refuses to get off the plane? Tase them? Ha, Ha, Ha, just kidding. This is a stupid policy.) Even so, if that message were only sent internally, I could imagine it being received fairly well by employees.
However, since this message was tweeted out to customers, it changes the frame or perspective of the whole note. While employees might see his message as supportive and responsive, United customers see only that they are “these customers” which makes them feel (understandably) angry and disregarded. Couple that with the video of a passenger being beaten, and you have a groundswell of anger toward the company.
Dissonant tone:
When people use words like “upsetting” we also expect consistent language to reflect that emotion. Again, the employees at United might have felt like they were going to be in trouble with their CEO, so maybe the most upsetting thing for them was that Munoz would throw them under the bus. For customers, however, the word “upsetting” is most closely linked to the image of the passenger being dragged through the aisle. Pairing that image with the passenger being dragged down the aisle and you get a surprising level of dissonance.
We are extremely sensitive to tone of voice, especially in heightened emotional situations. This particular message implies that the CEO does not care about its customers. In fact, they will be “re-accommodated” or beaten up if they do not comply. (See the comments on @United twitter feed for how people feel about that tone.)
It looks to me like Munoz may have been trying to handle two different audiences with one message. First he wanted to reassure the employees that he would support them and second he wanted to signal to the customer base that he was going to delve into what really happened. That is a tricky tightrope to walk for anyone. It was made impossible by the juxtaposition of the term “re-accommodate” and the video of the passenger being removed.

By choosing a tone-deaf word to describe the event, Munoz (and his team) has created more trouble for himself and his company.

When going through these crisis exercises, ask yourself two questions.

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What do I want them to feel? (tone)

This will help you focus your thinking and align your language with your intentions so that you don’t inadvertently create an upsetting message (or in this case, make a more upsetting message).



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