Case Study: Oscar Munoz’ Letter to the United Team on April 11

April 17, 2017

By David B. Fogel, Ph.D.

On April 11, 2017, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz offered the following apology letter to the United “Team.”

Munoz Figure A

Given the high public awareness of the incident surrounding this letter, it’s of interest to assess the emotional profile of the communication using EffectCheck®.

Overall Assessment

When compared to other apology letters used to benchmark EffectCheck in this category, Munoz’ letter is assessed as follows:

Munoz Figure 1

Figure 1. EffectCheck analysis of the lexical emotions evoked in Munoz’ letter to United on April 11, 2017.

Given the very high visibility that such a letter is going to receive, it’s perhaps surprising to find such high levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression, while only offering a typical level of happiness. Figure 2 shows that evoked levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression were high from the start of the letter until just before the close.

Munoz Figure 2

Figure 2. 30-word moving window on anxiety, hostility, and depression from EffectCheck analysis of Munoz’ letter to United on April 11, 2017.

In contrast, evoked levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness drop quickly after the salutation and evoked levels of happiness never fully recover (see Figure 3).

Munoz Figure 3

Figure 3. 30-word moving window on confidence, compassion, and happiness from EffectCheck analysis of Munoz’ letter to United on April 11, 2017.

What is Missing?

With a belief that this letter would have been more effective – better received, reflecting better on the organization – if it evoked less anxiety, hostility, and depression from the reader, and if it evoked more compassion and optimism of better outcomes in the future – some easy revisions can improve this letter dramatically.

1. Munoz identifies immediately “outrage, anger, and disappointment” but omits empathy.

2. Munoz offers his deepest apologies but it is unclear to whom.

3. Munoz does not name “the customer” who was forcibly removed, which runs the risk of depersonalizing this person.

4. The repetitive use of “deepest apologies” and “deeply apologize,” followed by “make it right” and “do the right thing” are surprising, as avoiding repetition is common guidance unless that repetition is being used as a device (for example, “I have a dream”).

\

5. The conclusion offers a promise to do better but ends seemingly abruptly, missing an opportunity to raise confidence, compassion, and happiness.

Here is a potential revision of Munoz’ letter for consideration:

Munoz Figure B

Overall, EffectCheck assesses this revision as:

Munoz Figure 4

Figure 4. EffectCheck assessment of the revision to Munoz’ letter.

This evidences lower anxiety, hostility, and depression, as well as higher levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness. Figure 5 shows that confidence, compassion, and happiness are evoked earlier and much stronger into the conclusion.

Munoz Figure 5

Figure 5. EffectCheck assessment of confidence, compassion, and happiness in the revision to Munoz’ letter.

Summary

Munoz’ letter was posted on Facebook. It has elicited over 36,000 comments at the time of this review. A nominal search through the comments did not find any (not one) in support of the company or Mr. Munoz. That is likely in part due to the apparent late empathetic reaction to the event; however, it may also in part be due to what EffectCheck identifies as unnecessarily high levels of evoked anxiety, hostility, and depression, and insufficiently high levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness. In addition, when apologizing to someone, it’s highly recommended to not speak of them in the third person.