The crisis that threatened to turn us all into plane spotters

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Photo: nickyhardingUK on Pixabay
Photo: nickyhardingUK on Pixabay

Crisis communication expert Chris Tucker reviews Boeing’s faltering response to the 737 Max crisis. She is course leader for the Crisis Communication Diploma with PR Academy.

At first sight there may not look to be too much in common between the recent and still rumbling on Volkswagen diesel emissions crisis and the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max planes around the world following two fatal crashes. But both have their roots in corporate strategy and both raise questions about regulatory systems designed to protect us.

From a communications point of view it is a surprise to see Boeing, a company adept at lobbying in particular, fail some of the most basic tests of how to protect reputation in a crisis.

There are really only two civilian airplane manufacturers in the world: Airbus and Boeing. Both are locked in fierce competition as they target essentially the same market of airlines around the world. Each seeks to get the edge that will make airlines choose them over their rival and at the moment that edge is concentrated around fuel efficiency. More fuel-efficient aircraft saves money for airlines. Airbus were first out of the traps with a new fuel-efficient version of their A320, the Neo, so pushing Boeing to come up with something similar and they hoped better.  Hence the 737 Max. And this is where the problems start.

Without getting too technical, to be more fuel-efficient the 737 Max has bigger engines mounted more forward than before.  This means the nose of the plane can tip downward so software was installed to detect and correct this automatically without the involvement of the pilot. The issue that is beginning to emerge is that Boeing took a strategic decision not to tell pilots of the new software and what it was designed to do. Why? Because to do so would have incurred potentially millions of dollars of extra training for airline pilots with the likelihood of eliminating any savings from being more fuel efficient.

Much as Volkswagen’s crisis had its roots in stretching corporate targets that skewed internal behaviour, so Boeing sowed the seeds of its crisis by adopting a corporate strategy that put making its plane more attractive by saving airlines money at the forefront of its decision-making.  

There is a very important lesson in all this for communicators. Stay close to corporate strategy and think through the impact on stakeholders. It is the job of communicators to bring the outside world in and speak up for stakeholders.

Pilots are clever, highly-qualified people with an extremely important job. Making changes to planes that over-ride their skill without telling them was at the very least a breach of trust and that applies even if there never was a problem with the software which does not look to be the case with the 737 Max.

The second similarity is around regulation. Volkswagen was accused of gaming the regulations around diesel emissions. As you would expect the aircraft industry is heavily-regulated. However, as aircrafts have become ever more complex regulators who certify planes as fit to fly have become ever more stretched. The US regulator, the FAA, has come to rely heavily on aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing providing qualified staff to check airworthiness. You could say the likes of Boeing are ‘marking their own homework.’ In addition, other regulators around the world tend to follow the FAA.

As the regulatory burden grows on all organisations – public, private and charitable – communicators need to build relationships with those regulators and understand exactly how they operate.  In a crisis their call on what to say and do and the trust in them can determine the direction the crisis takes and the damage or otherwise to corporate reputation.

At the start I mentioned Boeing’s poor handling of the crisis communications around the 737 Max crisis. Boeing’s communications response has been slow to say the least. We did not hear from Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, until a statement issued a week after the second Ethiopian Airlines crash.  

The failure to put forward early a human face was a fundamental error. In his statement Mr Muilenburg, as you would expect, sought to be sympathetic to the victims but was decidedly vague on the causes of what were now two fatal crashes that had cost 350 lives.

Safety is paramount type statements do not cut it in such a situation. Of course, communicators are always advised not to speculate in a crisis but some sort of narrative that covers here is what we know and here is what we don’t know, is required. The concept of Stealing Thunder or coming out quickly with an organisational crisis narrative is widely known. Failure to do so and that information vacuum will be filled very quickly by others.

In this instance there were plenty of aviation experts willing to comment. In addition, nowadays a decision not to say much until investigations are complete is not really an option when information such as voice recordings will be released relatively quickly.

What is becoming clear is that Boeing were indeed aware of the software issue, were on to it and were looking to correct it. Last week (March 28) the fix was issued and announced. It looks as if Boeing fell into the trap of not communicating what it was doing until it had finished what it was doing.

Nowadays, again to keep control of the narrative, organisations have to communicate whilst they are fixing not wait until the fix is ready.  The failure to maintain trust has resulted in threats to literally billions of dollars of orders.

Boeing operate business-to-business. They are not used to consumers taking an interest in the model of plane they are about to board. Once consumers were asking their travel agents to swap them off of 737 Max planes the poor crisis communications strategy of Boeing was really revealed. Boeing may have been certainly in the past adept at talking to politicians, regulators and other businesses but its slow response to this crisis and the lack of a human face to communicate confidence and compassion has cost them dearly.