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Sean Spicer and Oscar Munoz and the art of bad PR

Written By | Apr 14, 2017

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2017 — It was a week for unforced errors in America, and two of them were jaw-dropping.

Despite a home run or two, the Trump administration stepped into an enormous pile of rhetorical fecal matter. Yes, President Trump responded forcefully to Syria and yes, Neil Gorsuch is now Justice Gorsuch. Illegal crossings at our Southern border are at epic lows, and Wall Street continues to react favorably to the new commander in chief.

Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer made the biggest blunder anyone in politics can make: He brought up Hitler. He said, apparently oblivious to the enormity of what he was saying, that even “Hitler didn’t … sink to using chemical weapons.” He added for the gruesome good measure, “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

You could almost hear America slow clap. But Spicer was right: Hitler killed millions in his death camps with Zyklon B, not Sarin, humanely killing millions more with a bullet to the head or by starvation.

It’s unlikely Spicer meant to deny the Holocaust or the atrocities of the Third Reich. But we can turn this into a pre-Holocaust Day teaching moment thanks to he Simon Wiesenthal Center, which issued the following comment:

“The Simon Wiesenthal Center endorsed President Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airbase after Assad’s forces deployed chemical weapons that targeted and killed Syrian civilians, including women and children. Our Center also has called on the international community to try Assad for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

“However, Assad’s crimes pale in comparison to the unprecedented scope of the genocide, murder, mayhem and global conflict unleashed by Hitler and his supporters in Germany and across Europe. …

“Mr. Spicer’s goal was to rally support for President Trump’s tough stand on Syria. It may have had the opposite effect among Russians, Jews, Slavs and other victims of the Nazis. Vladimir Putin will certainly use this grotesque misstatement to further bolster his pro-Syrian position among his citizens.

“For 40 years the Simon Wiesenthal Center has been teaching millions of people about the lessons of the Nazi Holocaust. One key lesson is that it is inappropriate to compare Auschwitz, or the Warsaw Ghetto to contemporary events. The goal of Holocaust education, indeed the goal to standing up to evil leaders like Assad is to avoid future catastrophes and avoid the unfathomable scale of Hitler’s genocidal crime.

“That is the lesson that all our leaders should take away from Holocaust Memorial Day later this month.”

Spicer wasn’t the only one to dive with almost ponderous deliberateness into a reeking, gooey PR disaster. Under the general headline of “What the heck,” a 69-year-old passenger, Dr. David Dao, who refused to give up his seat to a United Airlines employee was physically and brutally removed his flight by three, burly, Chicago airport police.

The stupidity of calling in the police to drag a passenger off the plane was bad enough in this age of instant internet video uploads. And the video was painfully bad for United. It got epically worse when Dao staggered back onto the plane, bloody and seemingly incoherent, wailing that he needed to go home.

America was fascinated, and outraged. The police were suspended, a result that killing unarmed civilians rarely accomplishes. But then it got bizarrely, unimaginably worse.

United CEO Oscar Munoz opened his mouth and tweeted.

CEOs of major corporations have PR professionals to help them craft their message. United’s PR professionals must have been bumped from a flight somewhere in China because they weren’t there for Munoz.

With Spicer-esque cluelessness, Munoz apologized for the need to “re-accomodate” Dr. Dao. At the same time, United spokespeople were unable to explain whether the flight was overbooked or fully-booked, and they seemed unclear about whether their message was aimed at the press, their customers, or the fleet of lawyers circling around Dao.

United CEO Oscar Munoz: I’m sorry. We will fix this.

— United (@united) April 11, 2017

Like Spicer, Munoz compounded his error, though he spent a day planning how to do it with maximum effect. He finally sent a message to United employees criticizing Dao as belligerent and uncooperative, and made himself the face of cold, heartless and inhumane corporate America.

Both Spicer and Munoz made unforced errors oddly decoupled from reality. Spicer’s comments were thoughtless, though probably not malicious, the result of opening his mouth before engaging his brain. Munoz’s were premeditated, the product of corporate thinking rather than a human heart and brain.

Had Spicer thought clearly, he wouldn’t have made the news, and the White House would have had a good week. Had Munoz thought like a man, he could have defused a bad situation and promised changes to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

Neither the Trump administration nor United Airlines has a store of public goodwill they can draw from when they make mistakes. Their latest errors have earned them only scorn, not sympathy, and recovery will be costly.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.