In the wake of probably the worst public relations week that any company has experienced in recent history, United Airlines is looking for at least three new PR specialists.

The want ads are fascinating--for both their sheer honesty and for the scope of the challenges they spell out for these new positions. Originally posted on United's careers website about 10 days ago, at least one of the ads was reposted on a separate job board this week.

Of course, the airline has been in the news just a little bit lately, between those two dates. If you somehow missed the story, here's a recap--or else just Google something like, "United Airlines bloody passenger video" (4.1 million results), or "United Airlines CEO apology" (2.7 million results).

Here's why these "Manager -- Brand Public Relations" ads are so fascinating. (A writer on the travelers forum FlyerTalk, username privacylawyer, deserves credit for spotting one of them first.)

Striking honesty

Most of us are used to corporatespeak, and of course there's a lot of it in these United PR want ads. But pay attention to the fine print, and you'll see that they're enthrallingly frank about the challenges the airline faces. Take the first line, included in all three ads:

Along with transforming the way United does business, we are reimagining our airline's award-winning Global Communications Team from nose to tail ...

Read closely. The very first line suggests that whoever takes these jobs will be walking into some serious drama. If the "award-winning" team was doing anything effectively, why would there need to be a "reimagining ... from nose to tail"?

Elsewhere, the ad says the company wants people who can "help United reclaim its reputation as one of the world's great and resilient companies."

Granted, United CEO Oscar Muñoz did in fact win an award for communications just last month, but "reclaim"? Hmmm. Whatever else that word choice conveys, it concedes that even before this week's debacle, United's brand faced serious challenges.

"The pace is fast ..."

"The pace is fast, our standards are high and the opportunities are boundless," the ads promise. How fast?

How about six million American video views in the first 24 hours, plus another 210 million more views in Asia? As for boundless opportunities, well, there's a common misconception that the Chinese character for crisis is a sort of portmanteau of the words for danger and opportunity.

That's not exactly accurate, but it's probably true that in the wake of this week's ineptitude, there's nowhere to go but up for United and its public relations team.

Big challenges in China.

Here's a headline from this week in the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong:

'We'll thrash United Airlines until we get an apology': millions of Chinese view eviction video as enraged users vow vengeance.

It's long, but the point is clear. And whose job will it be to reverse the sentiments of literally millions of Chinese people? You guessed it: one of these three brand-new public relations managers, who will work in San Francisco. His or her duties will include:

Creating and maintaining a favorable image and brand reputation for United in San Francisco and destinations United serves to Asia and Los Angeles ...

If this midlevel employee could do that effectively, he or she would be saving one of the biggest and most lucrative worldwide opportunities for United. I wonder if the salary that's being offered reflects that.

A boss who used to work at Starbucks.

OK, this part is just a little bit strange. The ads make a big deal out of the fact that the head of the communications department at United, Jim Olson, used to be an executive at Starbucks. (It's the second sentence in all three ads, before they even tell you anything about the roles themselves.)

Of course, the ads were written before United spent a week executing a bumbling public relations strategy that "will be quoted in textbooks as an example of how not to respond in a crisis," according to the same organization that gave Muñoz his PR award less than a month ago. So maybe it's fair to wonder if Olson, the "former Starbucks Corporate Communications executive," might soon also be a former United Airlines executive.

I asked United for comment on any of this--the want ads, the response to them, or United's overall PR strategy, either from Olson himself or on behalf of the company. A spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy, wrote back: "Thanks for your reaching out. We are going to decline to participate in this story."

So, no comment from United's PR department on a story about United's PR department. That's their right, and to be fair, it's been a heck of a busy week for them.

Or then again, maybe they're just short-staffed. We'll see if these ads bring them any relief.

Published on: Apr 14, 2017
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