After suffering a heart attack and cheating death one month into the job, unconventional CEO Oscar Munoz led United to become America’s best airline. That was the gist of the headline Business Insider reporter Benjamin Zhang penned just two months ago when describing Munoz after his success turning around the fortunes of the airline. On March 16, Munoz collected PRWeek’s coveted U.S. Communicator of the Year award for his ability to build consensus.
Within 48 hours of the fateful video showing the forceful removal of Doctor David Dao from United Express Flight 3411, PRWeek publishers virtually snatched back their choice. As if everything the man had accomplished the prior two years had been wiped out or undone with one badly managed crisis, at least in the eyes of elite media, PR professionals and an angry public. As if Munoz had personally ordered the aviation officers who forcefully removed Dao from the plane resulting in his injury.
Watching how this story has become a feeding frenzy of epic proportions has both astounded and angered me. Initially, I was one of the voices expressing a certain smug satisfaction with the mishandling of communications for this terrible, unfortunate incident. But as this story continues to unfold, instead I see this as an example of what has gone wrong with modern news commentary, gotcha journalism, social media and the IoT affect.
No one is winning in this media and now political circus. Yes, the horrific incident should never have happened. Excessive force should never have been used to deplane Doctor Dao. Munoz and United should have gotten their apology right the first time. But does a highly respected CEO leading under difficult circumstances deserve to have his good reputation eviscerated in this way? As if every good, decent act he achieved has evaporated in an instant with one PR crisis?
PR crisis specialist Marvet Britto in a CNN interview explains why this incident has snowballed into such a massive backlash. “CEO (Munoz) was slow to react, slow to respond. It’s very hard to pivot from that. It took too long. (United has) been convicted in the court of public opinion, which is the most dangerous court.” Perhaps this is the understatement of the year.
Along with millions of the American public, on Thursday I watched the press conference put on by the law firm representing Doctor Dao and his family, Corboy & Demetrio, with spokesperson Thomas Demetrio at the helm. Demetrio is hailed as one of the most powerful litigators in the country. He and fellow attorneys have seized on this opportunity with gusto. During the press event (after carefully keeping this under wraps since Sunday’s event), Demetrio revealed for the first time that Dao suffered a significant concussion, broken nose, and injury to his sinuses. He also lost two front teeth.
Again, this should never have happened. The aviation officers who removed Dao from the plane used unnecessary force. Yet, clearly Demetrio and his law firm are seeing the PR possibilities this case presents, the chance to “take a stand” against the growing class divide in the country and milk it for everything it is worth as the suit progresses.
Paraphrasing here, from the press podium Demetrio called out corporations and United in particular, saying that for a long time “they have bullied us.” He rhetorically asked the audience, “Are we just going to continue to be treated like cattle?”
Continuing, Demetrio said, “Doctor Dao to his great credit has come to understand that he is the guy. He’s the guy to stand up for passengers going forward. It’s us against them. Well, we’re them and this lawsuit among other things will create not just a national discussion but an international discussion” (presumably on the outrageous overbooking practice and lack of clear airline policies, rules and training on deboarding procedures, which Demetrio has implied enabled this situation. It certainly will create substance for a lucrative lawsuit). Never mind the fact that it has since come to light that this situation did not come about because of an overbooking situation. The flight was full but not overbooked. Instead, as explained by John Slater, a United vice president, the decision to bump passengers was made to accommodate airline employees in order to meet federal guidelines requiring rest for crew members beween assigned flights.
And about that overbooking practice? Has this incident tapped into bubbling anger by a public simply waiting for a champion like Doctor Chao and his warrior Thomas Demetrio to set things right, stand up for the little guy and to the victor go the spoils? Or has this sentiment been ginned up by exploitative media and other opportunists with something to gain?
The answer to that question is complicated. In 2016, U.S. airlines posted a bumping rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers, the lowest annual rate since 1995, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. According to this story published April 11th in TechCrunch, the financial incentive for this practice benefits both the airlines and passengers. Seems the number of no shows for flights is around 5 percent. The airlines are able to track this (thanks to the IoT) through the vast amount of data available to them through electronic booking. They run sophisticated models to ensure planes are as full as possible. Why? “Unused tickets cause a liability on the balance sheet — the tickets you sold are often still valid, you just don’t know exactly when those passengers are going to show up to try to re-book their seats,” says TechCrunch journalist Haje Jan Kamps. He says this loss of revenue is unsustainable for an industry that can run at a profit margin of as little as 1 percent.
As an innocent bystander, in my view it seems the purpose of the law firm’s press conference was to get the upper hand in its case against the airlines by capitalizing on the tsunami of negative emotion this incident has provoked. Demetrio skillfully used every trick in his legal arsenal to evoke every possible emotion to win public favor for his firm and his client.
His strategy seems to be working. One of the first stories filed by CBSNewYork/AP following the press conference had this opening paragraph: “A lawyer for the passenger dragged out of his seat and off a United flight said the experience was more horrifying than when his client left Vietnam during the fall of Saigon.”
This despite–at another point in the press conference–saying, “He has no memory of going back onto that airplane. Absolutely zippo, nada. Not a lick of it,” when asked by a reporter to comment on Dao’s decision to reboard the plane after initially being removed a first time.
In another exchange when a reporter asked Demetrio about CEO Munoz’ apology and if Dao would accept it, he said, “He apologized. We accept that. But that’s not gong to let him off the hook here.” It seems that the City of Chicago, too, is now on the hook. The aviation officers contracted by United who removed Dao are city employees.
If I sound cynical, I apologize. I do feel for Doctor Dao and his family and without question unreasonable force was used to remove this passenger from the flight. I am not writing this to delegitimize or in any way minimize the injuries or trauma this incident has caused Doctor Dao, his family or other members on the plane who may have been impacted. However, in the same breath that attorney Demetrio calls for United Airlines, and now all airlines and in fact all of corporate America to “treat us with fairness, respect and dignity,” perhaps he could provide the same courtesy to United Airlines and CEO Oscar Munoz before going in for the kill.
Throughout the press conference Demetrio refused to answer any questions regarding Doctor Dao’s professional practice, his possible motives for reboarding the plane after his removal, or articles that have been published about prior questionable judgement Dao has displayed in the course of his career. Seemingly, any attempts to smear the doctor’s good reputation are off limits, but this standard of decency apparently does not apply to United Airlines or CEO Oscar Munoz. Was the selection of Doctor Dao for his seat racially motivated? Demetrio gave mixed responses on this question, at one point saying he didn’t believe so, but at another saying he certainly hoped not.
United Airlines will pay for its sins. Corboy & Demetrio will see to it. Munoz may ultimately lose his job.
Let us not forget that this is a very tense, emotional situation. Many facts in this case have not yet come to light. We are living in very turbulent times in a nation deeply divided on politics, race and economics. Corboy & Demetrio has everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting Doctor Dao and his family on a pedestal while demonizing CEO Oscar Munoz and indeed corporate America. This has proven to be an effective strategy for protagonists of all stripes here and abroad. Now we see it playing out with this story as a gleeful media tags along for the wild ride.
The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.