Boeing has shown what not to do in a crisis

Following the disasters of Ethiopian Flight 407 and Lion Air Flight 610, critical voices have demanded that Boeing immediately ground all of its 737 Max 8 planes . News media questioned not only the planes’ safety, but also the delayed action of Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. Now no matter what the details behind the crash turn out to be, Boeing has itself to blame for the fallout. Here’s what we can learn.

Don’t let others tell your story  

Boeing’s refusal to immediately act on the safety concerns of officials and the public has resulted in them losing control of the story. The company appeared to avoid responsibility rather than acknowledge the gravity of two planes of the same model crashing within 5 months.

Boeing’s CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg personally called President Donald Trump to assure him that the planes are safe, and the company sent out a press release and an internal email to its staff to that same effect, leaving the decision to ground the planes up to the many nations whose airlines use them. Many have done so, including Australia, China, Germany, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and the UK. Generally large companies and industries try to pre-empt government regulation, so Boeing’s inaction here is a curious mix of hubris and bureaucratic slowness.

While U.S government officials and the Association of Flight Attendants demanded that the FAA and Boeing review the safety of the model before allowing further flights, it took international pressure before Boeing gave in, by which point the narrative had already turned against it.


Don’t forget who your audience is

Travelers and their loved ones put their trust in the safety and reliability of airplanes every day. Following the second crash in which all 157 passengers and crew were killed, travellers globally voiced their concerns about the 737 Max, but Boeing’s actions and communication failed to reassure them.

A responsible move would have been to urge authorities and airlines to take the plane out of the air until the issue could be identified and safety for passengers could be guaranteed. While Boeing internally scramble to identify the issue (the latest theory is that it was due to the absence of a signal light which has now been made standard), outside perceived the company as more concerned with continuing sales than ensuring safety.


Don’t take a blanket approach

During a crisis in which human life has been lost and safety continues to be a concern, a massive company like Boeing must engage a correspondingly huge number of stakeholders, including government regulators, airlines, and the public at large. Communication with these stakeholders should be human-oriented, with separate consideration for the needs of each.

In the aftermath of the incidents, Boeing’s response was overly general and insufficiently detailed. In an information vacuum people tend to assume the worst, which is why it is crucial to respond in a way that demonstrates recognition of the urgency and gravity of the crisis at hand.


By Jesse Ward, a Strategy and Relationship Executive at EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam)


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