- On May 3, 2017
Is this a good letter?
That’s the question my sister asked me when she was wondering what I thought about the correspondence every United Airlines’ customer received from the carrier’s beleaguered president, Oscar Munoz, in the wake of the company’s recent public relations nightmare.
The letter had been sent in an email with the subject line, “Actions Speak Louder than Words.”
Munoz and United have done all the right things to help make sure what happened doesn’t happen again—no argument there—but the letter was too long and its tone bordered on obsequiousness, diminishing the impact of United’s good deeds and Munoz’s efforts to establish himself as a credible, articulate leader.
Here’s a look at some of the letter’s missteps:
• Munoz’s tone tended to grovel, and he used too many words to express the plainest of thoughts.
Saying each flight represents “an important promise of service and respect” doesn’t actually make that promise more significant. Saying United has been “working urgently to answer” questions doesn’t persuade me that more effort was spent—and really, we don’t care so much about the process. Which leads me to the next point.
• The headline, Actions Speak Louder than Words, didn’t pay off until the eighth paragraph, where all the things United has done were buried in a lumpy passage. People often ask me when to use bullet points. This would have been the time.
• Munoz used the passive tense twice, making it sound as though United was shirking responsibility—not a good idea in an apology letter: It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values and We broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes.
Munoz would have sounded stronger had he written, It happened because we placed our corporate policies ahead of our shared values and We broke that trust when we allowed security officers to forcibly remove a passenger from one of our planes.
Munoz’s use of the passive tense, however, was not nearly as dodgy as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s was when, engulfed in scandal over his role in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, he finally acknowledged that “mistakes were made.”