How Good and Bad Leadership Affects PR

The role of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) has changed. In the olden days, the CEO was a faceless entity that only a privileged few got to meet. Today, things are different. The modern CEO is now seen and heard by both the public and staff. And your communications style can have a massive impact on how your company is perceived.

Here’s a great example of how to do it well from Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines.

How United Airlines got united

Since taking over the reins of United Airlines in September 2015, Oscar Munoz, has had to clean up the mess his predecessor’s bribery scandal had left, as well as restart negotiations with the flight attendants’ union. He’s also had to placate disgruntled staff that were unhappy five years after a merger with Continental. Staff morale was at an all-time low, customers were deserting the airline, and the company had lost all credibility.

If this wasn’t enough to deal with, Munoz suffered a near-fatal heart attack and had a subsequent heart transplant, just a short time after starting his new post.

Eighteen months on, United’s share price has rebounded, employees are united (excuse the pun), negotiations are over, customer service has improved, and two very senior executives have been hired from United’s number one competitor, American Airlines.

How did Munoz do it?

By being a brilliant communicator.

Munoz has referred to United as a ‘people business,’ and his strategy from day one has been to reconnect with employees and customers. For the first 37 days in his new role, Munoz travelled around the US on a ‘listening tour’, meeting United staff and giving them the opportunity to vent their frustrations to him. This move restored employee confidence. He also ended a three-year stalemate between United management and the unionised workforce over staff wages in just four months, bringing together the old Continental and United into one big happy company.

Munoz’s ethos is that you need to listen with humility and get people to be willing to talk to you before you can earn their trust. He’s been commended for his warm, open style of communication, and it seems to be filtering down to employees. At the end of December 2016, United Airline’s customer satisfaction scores were at an all-time high.

On the other side of the road there’s Uber

In a recent article, PR Week compared Oscar Munoz’s communication style with Travis Kalanick, the CEO of
Uber. Kalanick was filmed by a dashboard camera arguing with an Uber driver about pricing and repeatedly dismissing the driver’s criticism of the company as ‘bullshit’. Kalanick ultimately stormed out of the car, slamming the door.

This comes on top of claims of a culture of sexism at the company, corporate espionage, and a general lack of transparency in its business dealings. Uber didn’t win any friends either after New York City taxi drivers stopped work to protest over President Trump’s immigration ban, and Uber carried on working, even lowering its prices during the protest.

Kalanick has set a poor tone for company communications and culture. He is fast losing the respect of drivers and customers alike, and has had to deal with thousands of people deleting the Uber app in objection to his alleged support for Trump. The Twitter hashtag #DeleteUber was trending during the protest.

Kalanick’s response has been lacklustre. He issued one email to employees, apologising for his behaviour and vowing to investigate the claims of sexism and sexual harassment. Apart from that, he has remained tight-lipped.

Despite his poor leadership and the lack of communication from Kalanick, Uber remains the biggest global player in ride-hailing and the likelihood is, passengers will stick with it out of convenience. But it remains to be seen how it will affect Uber long-term.

How can you, as a CEO avoid an Uber style communications screw-up?

As a leader, your employees will take their cue from you in terms of the way they communicate. So, you need to:

  1. Speak with sincerity

As Munoz demonstrates, nothing is more effective than being sincere when you communicate. Sincerity is the cornerstone for making a connection with staff, customers and stakeholders.

  1. Be consistent

Live your message and practise what you preach. You’ll have a wider reach and carry more influence. Your credibility comes from your consistency of character.

  1. Make the dialogue two-way

Communication should never be a monologue. The best leaders create a dialogue by listening and inviting others to express themselves.

  1. Connect emotionally

This is hard for many leaders because they feel they need to project a certain persona. Let it go. To connect with your people emotionally, you need to be transparent. Be human. Show them what drives you, what you care about, what makes you get out of bed in the morning. Express these feelings openly, and you’ll forge an emotional connection with your teams.

Read for more tips on effective internal and external comms in your organisation.

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