Poky Crisis Comms Management Guts Boeing

Swift and compelling response with 737 MAX would have reassured the company

Picture by Boeing

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late”, a quote from The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, first performed on January 18, 1602, becomes the handiest most current piece of advice taking Boeing’s response to 737 MAX crisis into account.

The first accident took place on October 29, 2018. A 737 MAX Lion Air, flight 610, as soon as it took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, pilots received a warning that the plane was in danger of stalling. Twelve minutes into the flight, the plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. Five months later, on March 8, 737 Max Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, covering the Addis Ababa-Nairobi route, six minutes after taking off slammed into the ground at 700 miles per hour. All 157 people on board were killed. The outcome on December 17, 2019, is that exchange stock markets have reacted as they usually do when an unexpected negative event has a long-term impact on any organization’s reputation and bottom line when crisis communications management is not taken seriously. The CEO of Boeing in those cases, reality knocks at companies’ front door with all its rawness. Shares have decreased 25% in the last 10 months and down to 4% of its value on Monday’s Wall Street session. 

This FT headline defines the lay of the land: 

Financial Times

As well as this one from The Guardian:

Or this headline from the Independent:

El País in Spain also:

A more accurate and profound study since the beginning of the crisis to take all possible consequences into account would have reassured the American manufacturer. Experience and records tell that the situation would have been slightly different today for the company’s reputation and bottom line. This post analyses Boeing’s crisis communications management and what could have done instead. 

Opposed reactions

Boeing reacted very differently in each situation. Right after the first accident, involving Lion Air Flight 610 in Octobrer, the manufacturer issued just two tweets. The first one, right after knowing the accident was used to point out that Boeing was “aware of reports of an airplane accident and closely monitoring the situation”. On the second one the company expressed its “concern for those on board” and extended “heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones”, followed by a statement. 

That was it. Taking crisis communications management into account it could be considered a normal reaction. A crisis is an unexpected negative event that threatens to have a long-term impact on any organization’s reputation and bottom line. In the given case, apparently none of these applied, therefore the reaction might be considered correct. That is so because due to two main reasons. On one hand, initially, this accident was not supposed to have any long-term impact on Boeing’s stakeholders, environment, business operation, reputation or bottom line. It didn’t.

On the other hand, Media was working quite effectively to undermine Lion Air‘s reputation, a not very well considered low cost carrier. France 24 underlined a month after the accident that the aircraft was not suitable for flying. 

So did Los Angeles Times:

Besides, the airline had a spotty safety record over the last decade. In 2013 it had a non-fatal crash and between 2007 and 2016 a ban from European and US airspace.

La vida was bella

Crisis, what crisis then? During October 2018 and March 2019 things went quite well for Boeing. Apparently, the manufacturer did not have to worry a bit. Surely, investigations on Lion Air were carried on and continued. It is true that on November 6, 2018, the FAA and Boeing announced they were going to issue an Airworthiness Directive warning about “possible trim stabilizer control issue due to faulty angle-of-attack indicators”. 

But to put it straight, between both accidents, airlines around the world continued flying the Boeing 737 MAX and the US manufacturer built and delivered more planes and closed more deals. On March 10, the date of Ethiopian Airline accident, Boeing had delivered 386 units of the 737 MAX, according to the company. Expectations were high and the crisis over the days and the months turned out to be just an emergency. Everything was running smoothly. Everything was under control and life seemed to be beautiful until then.  

Rampage starts

Issues happen, situations arise. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, on March 10 at 8.44 a.m. local time, six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa towards Kenya, hit the ground at 700 miles per hour. All 157 people on board were killed. MCAS had activated twice and pilots had reported a flight-control problem. That same day the Eastern African carrier took a drastic decision: all 737 MAX aircraft were grounded sine die. In this case the Media did not give the benefit of the doubt and suspicion and mistrust spread. Ethiopian Airlines plays in the big leagues. 

Markets reacted immediately as well, as usual in these situations. 

The next day, on March 11, the Chinese aviation authority, known as Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) ordered all country’s airlines to stop flying the Boeing 737 MAX. Among them there was Air China to whom Boeing had recently delivered new aircrafts. 

Aviation authorities around the world decided to take the same decision on March 11 and 12. The FAA initially hold that the Boeing 737 MAX was airworthy, but on March 13 surrendered and ordered the plane grounded indefinitely. 

This time Boeing moved faster or at least more concerned than with Lion Air. The damage could be higher. 

As the situation evolved Boeing moved along as well. By March 17 the aviation industry had turned its back on the company. Rampage was already on. 

More headlines on March 22:

Dennis Muilenburg moved ahead.

But there was a very important stakeholder that Boeing had not been caring enough at that stage and that was people: the families and friends of the victims of both flights needed answers, not to talk about airlines and suppliers, as the company seemed to have more technical responsibility. Until April 4, practically a month after the accident the manufacturer didn’t seem to realize this very important aspect and issued a video through Twitter.

Despite the effort, it was not enough in terms of crisis management. The first public interview took place on May 29, more than two and a half months after Ethiopian Airlines accident. 

Red lines

Notwithstanding, within the crisis communications management field there are certain red lines that no one should ever cross. Rapid response is the most important issue any carrier or global aircraft builder has to deal with amid a crisis. We are currently living in communication times and not understanding this major factor translates into not being accurate about how Media (Social Media included) work, and by extension how this can affect your reputation and your bottom line as well. Besides, when your mistakes have consequences over people’s lives, crisis communications answers should be immediate.  This is what I tell it is mandatory to all aviation companies, or sector stakeholders, when working as a Kenyon Emergency Services Crisis Communications Associate or as an independent one. Boeing’s slow reaction is just an example of what should not be done, although formally the interview given to CBS Evening News by its CEO Dennis Muilenburg is perfect: he apologizes to the families, he takes all the responsibility and assures that procedures will be revised to improve

Golden Hour Rule

Unfortunately, the main issue here is that Muilenberg breaks the Golden Hour Rule.  When an accident is confirmed by authorities a response has to be given to stakeholders in less than sixty minutes, usually a press conference. Prior to this, a tweet outlining that the company is aware of the situation will be immediately released in order to inform that it is known and that the carrier will later inform (in less than 60 minutes).  It is true that this is a very particular case, because this applies mainly to airline companies involved in a crisis and Boeing is one of the two most important global aircraft manufacturers. 

Consequences can be harmful and long lasting if timing is not well measured.

However, it is a crisis, and all crisis follow the same response pattern. Therefore, had Boeing’s response to 737 MAX Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents been faster, it wouldn’t have been forced to announce suspension of aircraft production and Muilenberg, probably, wouldn’t have been forced to testify in October before de United States Senate and Congress. 

Of course, this is a very specific case of a major business within the aircraft manufacturing industry but there are a few lessons worth considering by anyone. So, before turning a company of any size into a vulnerable mixture of frailties uncapable to cope with crisis and answers amid a crisis, it would be interesting just to revise crisis communications protocols. There is not only a company’s reputation and bottom line that could be jeopardized, but salaries, wages and, therefore, the future.    

So, next time, thrive with the right message, because nowadays there is no excuse for going in the wrong direction.

Carles Montaña

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