It’s easy to poke fun at United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer after they faced off in an extraordinary battle to determine who could permanently offend the most people. But it’s also an opportunity to learn valuable lessons about how not to behave if you don’t want everyone to hate you and your name to become a new verb meaning “to destroy one’s career, reputation and self-esteem.”
So let’s poke fun, and learn!
The screwups of the two men feel similar, as both got caught up in trying to defend the indefensible. Munoz had to answer for his company after passenger David Dao was dragged off a flight headed from Chicago to Louisville Sunday night. The seat was needed so a United employee could get to Kentucky. Dao, already checked in and sitting in his seat, turned down cash offers, refused to leave and ended up bloodied and battered.
Munoz quickly issued a public apology for having to “reaccommodate” the passenger, a word that attracted late-night TV hosts like icing attracts children. But he also emailed employees defending the airline’s deeply disturbing actions as “established procedures” and commending workers for “continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” Perhaps he meant “above and beyond” the bounds of human decency. Regardless, once that email went public, along with videos of Dao bleeding, things turned ugly for Munoz.
So Munoz’s second public apology, released yesterday afternoon as his company’s stock price tumbled and his career’s ankle appeared to be chained to that stock price, was the real deal. “Deepest apologies,” “truly horrific,” and “I continue to be disturbed” made the release. The obvious addendum, “at the sudden trajectory of my future” was silent, much like the “e” in “fired.”
Spicer is so visibly drained it’s as if he’s doing his White House briefings from a dunking booth where the pool is full of boiling oil and the balls only need hit the surface of the Earth to dump him. So, is it really a surprise that yesterday, in attacking Syrian President Bashar Assad and his use of chemical weapons, Spicer said: “You had, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons”?
OK, it was surprising, what with Adolf Hitler being literally the all-time world champion of killing people with chemical weapons, like the millions of Jews he gassed to death. But Spicer quickly bounced up and out of the hot oil, conceding that while Hitler did use gas in the “Holocaust Centers,” it’s not as if it was on his own people. So, yeah.
There is a difference between the two men’s situations, of course. Munoz made a dumb mistake in trying to defend the indefensible. Spicer defends the indefensible for a living, but here did so in an unusually unacceptable manner.
So what then are the lessons to be learned by these two men and all of us looking on in jaw-dropped, spittle-covered awe.
- Skip the first weaselly apology. Munoz already had to go to “real apology” mode in his second mea culpa. Spicer did, too, almost immediately, because Hiter “was not using the gas on his own people” won’t get it done.
- Don’t send an email to 86,000 employees retracting your first public apology, as Munoz did. Don’t send an email retracting your public apology to anyone, including your mom. But especially not 86,000 employees.
- Don’t compare anything to the Holocaust, or anyone to Hitler. It never works. No one likes it. In the 72 years since the war ended, the line’s never been a hit.
The last piece of advice ought to be “Don’t defend the indefensible,” but for corporate leaders it’s an unbreakable habit. And for Spicer it’s most of the job.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.