United Airlines hires Obama press secretary Josh Earnest as comms head

Earnest said the airline's recent spate of controversies has not made it easier to tell its story.

 Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

CHICAGO: United Airlines has hired former White House press secretary Josh Earnest as chief comms officer.

Earnest joins United on May 21 and will be based in Chicago. He will report to EVP, chief administrative officer, and general counsel Brett Hart and oversee a team of 60.

Earnest will oversee the airline’s comms strategy and team and serve as its chief spokesperson, the company said on Thursday.

"This is a company with an interesting story to tell," Earnest told PRWeek. "The fundamentals of the business are at least as strong as they have ever been. Obviously, it has had some challenges in the past 18 months, which have made it harder to tell that story."

Earnest replaces Jim Olson, who exited the company in January after a tumultuous tenure. The airline caused controversy when two young girls were barred entry onto a plan for wearing leggings last year. A month later, it drew intense scorn after violently ejecting a passenger from Kentucky-bound Flight 3411.

Shortly after the incidents, Hart added comms to his remit when he was promoted to chief administrative officer and general counsel. Olson left a couple months later and launched his own agency, Hangar 6 Strategic Storytelling.

Earnest noted that the public’s perception of United doesn’t meet its "genuine strength," and said he believes there is an opportunity to get flyers to take a second look.

"It’s not about a new slogan," Earnest said. "This is about showing people what’s happening. Once we get past some of the attention-grabbing negative headlines, they can look under the hood, from the day to day performance of the team on the ground to its leadership. Once they get a chance to do that, they’ll like what they have to see."

United also hired Terri Fariello as head of government affairs in July 2017. Fariello was the former VP of ExxonMobil’s Washington, DC, office, leading its federal and state government affairs. Around that same time, United hired Frank Benenati, the former director of public affairs for the Environmental Protection Agency, as director of corporate comms.

Earnest said he hopes to work across functions, particularly with investor relations. He added he and Fariello have talked about finding opportunities to integrate comms and government affairs to make their functions more effective.

Most recently, Earnest was a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He served in the White House since the start of President Barrack Obama’s administration in 2009, then as a deputy press secretary, his LinkedIn states. He took over as White House press secretary for Jay Carney in 2014.

Prior to that, Earnest served on Obama’s 2008 campaign in various comms roles, including deputy comms director, spokesman in a variety of areas, and Iowa comms director. He also spent time on Capitol Hill, working as comms director for U.S. Representative Robert Marion Berry (D-AR).

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