Will Boeing Recover? | A Lesson in Crisis Management

by | May 13, 2024

Navigating Turbulence: Boeing’s Path to Restoring Brand Reputation

It’s been a turbulent year for Boeing, raising doubts about its resilience in the face of adversity. As observers and stakeholder ponder the path forward for the world’s largest aviation company, Boeing’s situation offers valuable lessons in reputation management during times of crisis. It is also a stark reminder of the critical role strategic communication plays in reputation management. 

While proactive responses are crucial in a crisis, it is the sustained, strategic communication over time that ultimately restores trust and mends a tarnished reputation. The implementation of a well-crafted crisis management plan holds the potential to appease critics, restore trust in future passengers, and reassure both investors and the general public.

So how exactly has Boeing fared in past years? Let’s take a deep dive into the Boeing 737 MAX crisis.

 

Boeing 737 MAX Crisis Case Study:

Flashback to 2017 when the Boeing 737 MAX took flight amidst accolades as the epitome of aviation’s future. However, the narrative swiftly evolved into one marred by tragedy with the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018, claiming all lives onboard.

This marked the onset of a harrowing series of events, with March 10, 2019, mirroring the Lion Air tragedy as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 meets a similar fate. These two tragic incidents share a common factor beyond the loss of life: the involvement of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

 

Boeing 737 MAX Crisis Communication. How Did They Do?

Boeing’s response to these crises appeared reactive rather than proactive, with communication strategies lacking the necessary control and empathy to address the gravity of the situation. 

Post-Lion Air disaster, a deafening one-week silence from Boeing was followed by technical rhetoric rather than a heartfelt message to the affected. In 2024, the situation worsened – a litany of issues plagued the 737 MAX. First when a malfunction resulted in a door plug blowing out mid-flight on an Alaska Airlines flight to reported flight control jams on a United Airlines flight. In March, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a warning concerning engine thrust on all Boeing 737 Max planes.

 

How did Boeing respond to these crises?

After the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing’s reaction predominantly focused on technical details. They make mention of working closely with 737 Max customers and regulatory bodies to fix technical issues of the plane; but failed to provide the reassurance sought by passengers. Consequently, several passengers filed a lawsuit against Boeing, citing injuries (both physical and emotional) due to what they call “negligence”.

When United Airlines pilots encountered flight control issues in February 2024, Boeing’s responses mirrored past incidents, downplaying the severity of the situation. This pattern persisted even when the FAA flagged safety concerns in March, with Boeing maintaining a stance that increased the growing public concern.

 

Learning from Boeing’s Mistakes: Key Lessons in Crisis Management

Boeing’s series of unfortunate crises stand as a testament to the critical role of effective PR and communication strategies in crisis management. While adept crisis navigation can propel a company forward, Boeing’s response seemed to lead them on a regressive path. 

Below, we dissect the key components essential for any crisis response plan to avert reputational damage and regain trust.

 

Timeliness: The Power of Swift Action

Boeing’s one-week delayed response to the 2018 incident conveyed a sense of indifference. This delay symbolized a missed opportunity to control the narrative, demonstrate empathy, and serve as a reliable source of information during the crisis. This highlights the importance of having prepared statements that are empathetic and confident.

 

Transparency: Building Trust through Openness

In times of crisis, stakeholders demand transparency; so, a mere “we’re investigating” falls short of expectations. Boeing could have emphasized its commitment to safety and integrity by offering transparent communication before and after each incident. Transparency isn’t just a policy; it’s a principle that fosters trust and credibility.

 

Accountability: Embracing Responsibility

Boeing’s response to the FAA’s safety report in March 2024 showed a lack of accountability, deflecting responsibility for the identified issues. They claimed the issues did not pose an immediate risk or threat to the aircraft in question – a clear case of dodging responsibility which only prolongs the crisis. 

The only way to get past a crisis is to accept responsibility, acknowledge faults, and implement corrective measures as quickly as possible. Accountability paves the path to resolution and restoration.

 

Preparedness: Anticipating the Unforeseen

Boeing’s crisis management faltered not just because of the crises, but due to a lack of preparedness and the absence of a crisis communication strategy before these events occurred. Following the incident involving the door detachment on an Alaska Airlines flight, Boeing’s response appeared disjointed, indicating a lack of preparation. There were no immediate, clear protocols to follow, and no steps taken in advance to mitigate potential fallout.

A comprehensive crisis management plan would include pre-emptively crafted contingency statements, ensure staff are trained for swift response, and have an efficient mechanism for promptly gathering and disseminating accurate information. Such foresight and readiness are fundamental pillars in navigating crises effectively and safeguarding organizational reputation.

 

Proactivity: Anticipating and Addressing Concerns

Boeing’s management of the 2024 crises was criticized for being reactive rather than proactive. While the FAA flagged safety concerns about engine thrust, Boeing’s initial public statements aimed to reassure without addressing the underlying issues.

This reactive stance highlighted Boeing’s reliance on external assessments, waiting for the FAA’s findings instead of proactively conducting its pre-emptive safety evaluations. A proactive approach would have entailed continuous risk assessments and transparent dialogues, promptly addressing potential flaws and outlining decisive steps to investigate and rectify them. 

By prioritizing proactive measures, Boeing could have demonstrated a commitment to safety and accountability, fostering trust and confidence among stakeholders.

 

What Is the Biggest Lesson in Crisis Communication from the Boeing 737 Crisis?

The core lesson from Boeing’s crisis communication failures is the importance of empathy and transparency – recognizing the emotional impact of events on all stakeholders. Beyond facts and technical details, people seek reassurance and understanding. 

When technical jargon overshadows human concerns, the message misses the mark. Effective crisis communication strikes a delicate balance between factual accuracy and emotional resonance, bridging the gap between technicalities and human concerns.

 

Can Boeing Recover?

While the road to Boeing’s redemption may be fraught with challenges, the lessons learned serve as guiding beacons for charting a course toward recovery. However, the question remains: Can Boeing recover its former brand reputation amidst these recent crises?

Let us know what you think. Reach out to us at  Solv Communications or on Linkedin – Solv Communications.

Nicole Harris

Nicole Harris is the Founder and CEO of Solv Communications, a leading Reputation Management and PR agency in the Prairies. As a former network television news anchor and reporter, Nicole has gained deep insight into the power of earning trust through strategic communication. Over her 15-year career in the media she has covered some of the most high- profile risk management stories including cyber breaches at Fortune 500 companies, product recalls, workplace violence and everything in between. Nicole and her team’s extensive industry knowledge and strategic guidance will help you focus on what is in your control to mitigate risk and minimize damage to your reputation. It’s all about prioritizing strategic planning to spot an issue, effectively manage it, and develop action plans to safely steer you through any situation before it damages your reputation. Nicole has developed and delivered bespoke reputation management, strategic, and media training for senior executives, board members, politicians, and celebrities.