PR Failure #15: Boeing’s 737 MAX Crisis

Aaron Blank / April 3, 2019

 

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Another Month, Another Blunder.
Spring is here. Seattle is showing off blue skies and warming temperatures in preparation for summer. But while the weather is serene, one of the most turbulent stories this month continues to effect Seattle’s own Boeing and the failure of its celebrated 737 MAX 8 aircraft.
Wondering who won the award for February’s worst PR move? Read about it here.
The Story
On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just six minutes after takeoff, killing 157 passengers and crew members. This tragedy came just five months after Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in Indonesia, killing 189 people on board. In both instances, the aircraft at fault was the Boeing 737 MAX 8. Ethiopia is one of my family’s beloved countries as most know that our youngest was adopted from there. This hits too close to home on so many levels!
In an immediate response of the second incident, airline regulators around the world grounded the 737 MAX 8 as investigators tried to determine what caused the failures. By Sunday night, two-thirds of all MAX 8 aircrafts had been taken out of service.
Boeing released a statement on March 11 saying they were, “working closely” with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “make an already safe aircraft even safer,” but that no further action would be taken at this time. This left all U.S.-operated MAX 8’s in flight. With pressure on the U.S., Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, reportedly called U.S. President Donald Trump, asking him not to ground the 737 jets. Despite this, on March 13, President Trump announced a temporary ban on Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 jets, disregarding the FAA’s original decision to keep them in the air.
In the aftermath of two fatal crashes, many are left confused. Are customers safe to fly with Boeing, the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world? Were the aircraft safe to begin with, and if they were, how is Boeing going to fix the unknown cause of such deadly crashes? With little word from Boeing on the incident, the public has been forced to turn to news outlets for answers.
It’s important to acknowledge the tragedy of the situation. Boeing is the worldwide leader in an especially high-stakes industry where mistakes are compounded – both in the air and on the ground. But if we take a step back and analyze Boeing’s past month through a PR lens, there are lessons to be learned that can influence future communications decisions for the better. With a software fix reportedly underway, this is a character moment for Boeing. An opportunity for the aircraft manufacturer to enter a moment of correction where its identity can realign with its original values and once again help future innovations soar.
So, what missteps did Boeing make regarding its communications strategy?
The Mistake(s)
1. Letting someone else tell your story
One of the first steps in crisis response is to take control of your narrative. By getting ahead of the story, your company can shape public perception of the incident. Unfortunately, Boeing has been letting the news take control of this story.
With news outlets, regulating bodies and even the U.S. president chiming in, Boeing’s voice has been dispelled. Statements from the company lost merit amid the confusion, chaos and loss that surrounded the crash. If Muilenburg framed this situation as a challenge Boeing was facing but was determined to overcome by grounding all 737 MAX 8’s and 9’s immediately, the company would have been a voice of reason in a state of unknown. Instead, many are wondering if there is an ulterior reason Boeing was adamant about keeping its aircraft in the sky.
2. A Lot of Talk, Little Action
After Lion Air Flight 610 crashed on October 29, 2018, Boeing’s twitter feed instantly released a response. The company tweeted across all accounts that it was aware of the situation and responding to it. It also released, and tweeted a link to, a statement on its website. It continued to post press releases and updates, getting ahead of the media storm.
After Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed, and more than 40 countries grounded the Boeing aircraft that same night, Boeing pleaded to U.S. officials to not join the ban. When it did, Boeing responded with a pledge of confidence in the safety of its aircraft.
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On March 19, Argus Research downgraded Boeing to hold from buy, calling out Boeing’s management for not being proactive in its response. In this case, Boeing’s statements were timely, but its actions were not. By choosing not to ground its planes, Boeing lost the trust of stakeholders.
One commercial air crash is rare enough, two crashes happening so close together is bizarre. It is a testament for the safety of air travel. It is, and remains, the safest form of travel. But Boeing was completely caught off guard by this event and responded out of embarrassment and fear of failure, not the opportunity to assert confidence and global leadership in an intensely competitive industry.
3. Not saying sorry
The world is mourning nearly 350 deaths as a result of these two plane crashes. While Boeing expressed its condolences, the statements released have come across as apathetic. It took a full week after the crash to issue a statement of Boeing’s “deepest sympathies” to families and loved ones of those lost. The press release included a single sentence about the fatalities and a paragraph about the safety of the planes.
Boeings actions have caused many to believe the company is prioritizing profits over people. For airline passengers, safety is paramount. If Boeing does not choose to prioritize customer safety, it will certainly be found at fault in the court of public perception.
The Lesson Learned
When it comes to crises, saving face may not always be the priority. It is okay for a company to admit when it has failed, as long as it proves it is doing everything it can to address and fix the situation. While we know Boeing failed, it is doing little to show its regret, hurting its reputation in the long run. After the initial plane crash, Boeing should have evaluated its crisis communications plan to see what worked and where they could improve if this incident were to repeat itself. When this crisis did repeat itself just five months later, Boeing should have been more prepared to manage it.
Boeing could have learned a valuable lesson from Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol crisis of 1982. When product tampering of Tylenol capsules led to seven deaths, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO at the time, James Burke, immediately pulled over 31 million bottles from store shelves. Against the FDA’s advice, Burke famously declared the situation a public health problem. The result was one of the biggest PR wins in history. Sure, there are operational differences between these two industries and regulatory agencies, but the point is the depth and control of the response. Tylenol jumped in front of the crisis and did not fall victim to speculation. If Boeing had pulled its 737 MAX’s out of flight and declared them unsafe, therefore taking control of their actions, it may have been able to sustain this crisis and come out on top.
You can read all about the critical elements of a successful crisis communications plan here.
For now, all we can do is wait to hear what caused the two 737 MAX 8 crashes, and whether the Boeing jets are safe to fly. Since it began manufacturing aircraft in 1916, Boeing has been celebrated as one of the modern world’s greatest innovators. The company remains the engineering pride of the Northwest. Hopefully, the company can regain control of its narrative and build its reputation back to number one. We certainly expect it to.
Until next month,
Aaron Blank
CEO + President
The Fearey Group
For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at www.feareygroup.com.
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Comments (2)

    Yap Boh Tiong avatar

    Yap Boh Tiong Apr 4, 2019, 9:57 PM

    Thank you for an excellent analysis of the Boeing 737 Max 8 incidents.

    Boeing's reputation and credibility will come under further scrutiny following Ethiopian Transport Minister's media conference on the Ethiopian Airlines crash yesterday. She disclosed that the crew performed repeatedly all the procedures provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft.
    The investigators' report cleared the pilots of using incorrect procedures. This means the crash has pitted Boeing's reputation for technical quality against a successful modern African airline.
    This is bad news for Boeing and lawsuits are likely to follow soon.

    David Landis avatar

    David Landis Apr 5, 2019, 10:29 AM

    Great thoughts, Aaron. Companies need to always think about ethical decisions, even if they cost money. And they should listen to their PR professionals, not just their lawyers.

Aaron Blank GIF

Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!