The United States Law Week

INSIGHT: Managing Boeing’s Crisis—Back to Basics to Restore Public Trust

April 4, 2019, 8:01 AM

After hopping on two Boeing planes this week to deliver a presentation at Walt Disney World, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel uneasy. That’s the same crisis of confidence Boeing is facing from the flying public worldwide, and the result to Boeing could be very damaging.

The Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 fatal crashes just five months apart forced the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX jets around the world.

Indonesia’s flag airline, Garuda, canceled its order for 49 Boeing 737 MAX jetliners, citing the reluctance of the public to fly on the Boeing planes. Lawsuits have been filed against Boeing by a travel company alleging lost profits and the family of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger alleging the 737 MAX 8 isn’t safely designed.

Boeing’s reputation isn’t the only one suffering. So are airlines that operate fleets of Boeing aircraft, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration whose one-time reputation as the gold standard of airline safety regulators has been tarnished.

What do Boeing and airlines need to do to regain the public’s trust? Perhaps it’s time to get back to basics.

Assemble your team. Handling a crisis isn’t a solo mission, and no single person is able to solve it. At minimum, you need legal, key decision-making department heads, human resources, in-house communications, outside crisis communications, insurance, and the boots on the ground who were involved and know what happened first-hand.

Don’t rush to action without the facts. You need to get ahead of the story to influence its shape and tone. But you mustn’t rush in front of a news camera or onto social media armed with misinformation. In any developing situation with new facts constantly rolling in, you must maintain a delicate balance between speed and accuracy. Choosing one over the other isn’t an option.

Don’t lie or purposefully try to mislead. The truth has a way of finding its way into the light, even if it takes a while.

As more information unfolds about development of the 737 MAX, a picture has emerged that Boeing rushed to design and produce the updated plane to win a cutthroat race against Airbus. One former engineer described the attitude permeating the project as “Go, Go, Go.”

Questions also have been raised about whether the FAA ceded too much oversight of the plane’s certification to Boeing. This raised concerns that safety precautions slipped through the cracks

Take responsibility. Don’t try to cover it up, sweep it under the rug, or play the blame game. If you’ve erred, apologize. But if it an apology appears forced, it begs the question, “Are you really sorry, or just sorry you got caught?”

Never give the perception that you value profits over lives or that a crisis is an imposition, as BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward famously did when he said during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.

Show concern and don’t argue. While it’s important to protect your company from opening itself up to legal issues, you must show empathy with a personable touch. It’s possible to be genuine and protect yourself legally at the same time, and that sincerity buys enormous goodwill.

Don’t make deals that look suspicious. Families of those killed in the Indonesia crash were forced to sign “no lawsuit” agreements to receive compensation. Since such “release and discharge” agreements aren’t common practice in Indonesia but are in the U.S., some media have suggested their primary purpose was to protect Boeing.

Things that seem to have been coerced or agreed to behind closed doors fuel distrust.

Cooperate fully with regulators and investigators. If you don’t, it’ll look like you’re hiding something—and people who hide things are presumed guilty. At all costs, it mustn’t appear you are too cozy with regulators—in this case, Boeing and the FAA.

Act voluntarily. For public perception, it’s always better act voluntarily than to look like you’re dragging your feet, whether issuing an apology or statement, grounding a fleet of planes, or launching an investigation.

This is particularly true when health and safety are at stake. You must demonstrate that the public’s welfare (not your profit) is your top priority. Cue the frequently used statement that action is being taken “out of an abundance of caution.”

Answer the question, “How does this impact me?” When we hear news (good or bad), our natural response is to think about ourselves. When crafting your messaging to various stakeholders, keep this in mind. But while each group will have different interests, you must make sure that the core of your message is consistent. Remember, they’ll compare notes.

Keep your stakeholders informed as more information comes in. You don’t have to divulge every detail, but some are impactful and important to share. Always put new information in context to lessen the chances it’ll be misinterpreted.

Make (big) changes. When an issue arises, don’t brush it off by saying you’ll look into it later. That’s the equivalent of saying, “The check’s in the mail.” Also, don’t make small changes that won’t truly impact anything. If you want to show you’re committed to fixing something, you must put in the time and effort.

Focus on the future. If you want to move past a situation, then move on. Don’t keep bringing it up. If you’re trying to get over your ex, you can’t expect to do it by getting drunk and scrolling through her/his Facebook or Instagram feed.

In business school, two case studies are juxtaposed as the right and wrong ways to handle a crisis: Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol Recall of 1982 which was widely praised and the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 which was widely criticized. Where on the spectrum will Boeing land?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications LLC, is a strategic communications consultant and has more than a decade of expertise in crisis and reputation management. A former business professor, she is co-author of two crisis public relations books: “A Lawyer’s Guide to Crisis PR” (Second Edition), and “A Board Member’s Guide to Crisis PR.”

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