United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz named PRWeek U.S. Communicator of the Year

Munoz will be honored at the annual PRWeek U.S. Awards ceremony in New York City next week on Thursday, March 16.

United CEO Oscar Munoz has engaged multiple stakeholders in difficult personal circumstances.
United CEO Oscar Munoz has engaged multiple stakeholders in difficult personal circumstances.

NEW YORK: Oscar Munoz, the charismatic CEO of United Airlines, is PRWeek U.S.’s Communicator of the Year for 2017 – he is the fifth recipient of this title.

Since taking on CEO duties in September 2015, Munoz has transformed the fortunes of the beleaguered airline, galvanized staff, and set the business on a smoother course - all in the context of a tremendously difficult time personally.

Only two months and change after having undergone a heart transplant, Munoz returned to his United CEO role full time in March 2016 following the health crisis that struck just six weeks after he took on the airline’s top job.

Munoz has shown himself to be a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications. His ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline, and get them to rally behind it, is a key reason PRWeek named him 2017 Communicator of the Year.

Historically, United lagged behind its main rivals, American and Delta. But in 2016 the Chicago-based company’s stock price gained an impressive 27% over the year prior. In addition, the airline also had its "best full-year on-time performance" in history.

Critical to its success has been United’s ability, led by Munoz, to sign new contracts with all union groups, most well ahead of deadlines, helping to curtail customer service problems caused by disgruntled staff that had long plagued the airline.

Munoz won praise from union bosses for his easy rapport with shop-floor workers, a rarity in any industry. Undertaking an extensive meet-and-greet tour across the United network, Munoz rebuilt employee confidence in the airline brand.

Employee distrust and discontent was at a high for United when Munoz landed in the top job in September 2015. Its last CEO, Jeff Smisek, abruptly resigned in connection to a federal investigation that he made quid pro quo exchanges with public officials. Media noted it was another failure for the company following its merger with Continental five years earlier that had still not bedded down.

Born in Mexico and raised in Southern California, Munoz climbed the corporate ranks in finance at PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and AT&T before being named president of railroad operator CSX and then United.

He connected well with the airline’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and other workers partly because of his blue-collar roots – his father was a union meat cutter - and he hasn’t been shy opening up to employees or media about his heart problems. He invited Fortune to follow him on the job, which resulted in a highly positive feature.

Under Munoz’s vision for the brand, the airline hired Jim Olson away from Starbucks in February 2016 as SVP of corporate communications. United also hired its first chief storyteller and MD of digital engagement, Dana Brooks Reinglass.

The company launched UnitedAirtime, a platform for dialogue between Munoz, staff, and customers and held an internal leadership conference for more than 700 employees - the company’s intranet, Flying Together, enjoyed a 20% year-over-year lift in views.

Munoz will be present next Thursday at the PRWeek Awards 2017 gala ceremony to accept his honor - he follows in the footsteps of previous PRWeek Communicators of the Year Clementa Pinckney, Pete Frates, Edie Windsor, and Malala Yousafzai.

Check out all the winners here, including full case studies and honoree write-ups.

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