An organization can almost always bounce back from bad news—as long as the crisis response rings true.
Two crashes of Boeing’s new 737 Max aircraft occurred within six months and were linked to undisclosed software updates and missing safety features. Despite these tandem disasters, communications experts say the company could have salvaged its reputation.
Instead, industry insiders are giving the aircraft manufacturer a failing grade.
Helio Fred Garcia, a crisis management professor at New York University and Columbia University and president of crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, told Business Insider: “Trust didn’t fall because two of its plane crashes. Trust fell because they were seen to be indifferent.”
That Muilenburg apologized for the company’s role in the crashes was a good step for the company, Garcia said. “They said, ‘We’re on it, we apologize, we take it seriously, we’re on the scene.’ They got that right.”
But the apology video, he said, came too late, and the pre-recorded video format distributed through social media and news networks may not have helped.
“My sense of Muilenburg is that he was a few steps behind where he needed to be.”
“It was a good video. But it was a) late b) limited mostly to social media and any mainstream media who quoted from it.”
Some industry experts assert that in its early response Boeing tried to play it safe and say as little as possible. Those tactics rarely suffice when a company faces a big problem.
Business Insider continued:
Professor Irv Schenkler, who teaches crisis communication at NYU’s Stern School of Business, told Business Insider that Boeing took an “operational problem” and made it “a reputational crisis — driven by poor messaging at the start of the events, creating concern and fear.”
…But Muilenburg’s apology, Schenkler said, shows Boeing is “hoping to ‘hold the line’ with industrial customers and governments while also trying to put their best face forward via executive apologies using video.”
“To some extent, it’s a matter of putting lipstick on a pig — it’s still a pig.”
Lawyers are often heavily involved when a company’s addressing a consumer-facing crisis, and public contrition can be tricky amid a courtroom battle.
Attorneys for families of passengers who died in the 737 Max crashes have attacked Boeing for how it is addressing consumer fears and the personal tragedies.
Brian Kabateck, who represents 13 families suing Boeing over the Lion Air crash, told Business Insider that Boeing could help families by resolving the cases and letting them move on. But first, he said, they needed to be consistent in their messaging.
Joe Power, a Chicago-based personal-injury lawyer representing some Ethiopian Airlines crash victims, told Business Insider that Boeing asking for peoples’ trust is “not only confusing but disingenuous.”
He said Boeing was speaking more publicly because of attention on the case: “Because of the public outcry Boeing is slowly rolling out the truth. This slow truth appears to be coming from whistleblowers rather than the Boeing hierarchy.”
Room for growth
Some industry insiders have ideas about how Boeing could prove to consumers that it takes safety and transparency seriously.
Business Insider concluded:
Corridore, the aviation analyst, said that his company has given Boeing’s stock a “buy” rating, because “we do think that Boeing will get this software issue fixed, the planes are ultimately going to be safe.”
But he said they needed to think about how to manage the crisis “as they plot a business strategy for how it’s going to regain customer confidence for the next 50 years.”
…One means of helping Boeing’s image, Garcia said, would be for Muilenburg to appear before a congressional committee.
“The challenge for Boeing is this is now an issue of trust and it’s an issue of accountability, and only the CEO can restore that trust or retain that trust or otherwise speak in a way that is likely to do either of those things in front of Congress.”
However, Boeing must first stop the steady drip of information that points to continued internal turmoil. In a new statement, Boeing has admitted there were flaws in the 737 Max flight simulator.
“Boeing has made corrections to the 737 MAX simulator software and has provided additional information to device operators to ensure that the simulator experience is representative across different flight conditions,” the manufacturer told the AFP news agency in a statement.
Boeing acknowledged that the flight simulators were incapable of reproducing the kind of flight conditions that occurred at the time of the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March or the Lion Air crash in October.
The planes have been grounded worldwide since the two crashes, which killed 346 people. Both accidents were blamed on a defect in the anti-stall system.
Boeing isn’t helped by constant speculation about what fixes could have prevented a crash, but it still chooses to be overly cautious, addressing the problem piece by piece.
It’s unclear whether the pilots in the accidents had been trained using the 737 Max flight simulator. An earlier Times report, citing sources close to the airline, suggested the captain of the Ethiopian Airlines flight may not have trained on the simulator.
Prior to the accidents, Boeing had told airlines that pilots flying the 737 Max would not need to undergo training in the simulator. The company has since stressed that the Federal Aviation Administration had agreed with this view.
The FAA is now working with Boeing to determine what sort of training will be required once the 737 Max, which has been grounded since the Ethiopian Airlines crash, takes to the skies again. The plane is expected to be back in service this fall.
What’s your assessment of Boeing’s response, PR Daily readers, and how would you advise the company to bounce back?