Executive Rewind: How Boeing Contributed to its Own Crisis

Every airline will tell you passenger safety is their highest priority. It’s a boilerplate talking point. But actions speak much louder than words in this case. Especially since safety is more than just the issue of taking off, flying, and landing without incident. It’s a state of mind, too. Passengers need and want to feel safe.

So, when two of Boeing’s newest product crashed five months apart, killing nearly 350 people, and the accidents seem to have a lot in common, a sense of safety becomes paramount.

Why, then, did it take the FAA, under presidential pressure, days to order all 737 MAX jets flown by US airlines grounded? And why wasn’t Boeing front and center, getting ahead of the story?

The last time we heard anything substantive from Boeing before the grounding, CEO Dennis Muilenburg was reassuring on the safety of his new 737s in December of last year, two months after the Lion Airlines accident in Indonesia:

My 30+ years’ experience with crises, both working in news and as a media trainer, has repeatedly taught me emotion overwhelms statistics. And that’s validated by political pollster and consultant Lee Carter:

In a crisis, media gravitate to “experts” for their opinion.

In the arena of aviation, Michael Boyd is a favorite. Boyd has an excellent reputation and works with many commercial carriers. He also is a master of the sound bite. When asked about the safety of the MAX after the disasters in Indonesia and Ethiopia, he said he suspects pilot error and cited the poor record of both airlines. But Boyd also understands the reality of the resulting cacophony:

That din of voices and opinions complicates things, for sure. But they are part of the reality and have to be dealt with by the company and/or industry facing crisis.

Another example: Canada’s CBC interviewed former pilot and now aviation lawyer Arthur Rosenberg.

So, there’s an expert reinforcing people’s fear. All the more reason that Boeing needed to be a major voice in the conversation.

As consultant Lee Carter knows, this plethora of expert statements should’ve been a siren call to Boeing to take action:

One wonders what was weighing on Boeing along with safety? Perhaps the economic impact to its business as detailed by Washington Post reporter Aaron Gregg:

That’s a metric much easier understood by a business. But what about the potential public relations damage to the company and its impact on the balance sheet?

The overwhelming lesson here: in a crisis, fight (in a positive sense) is much better than flight (no pun intended). Have a plan ahead of time so you can get out in front and play a major role in the narrative. After all, when you have a crisis, you’re probably the source of the best, most factual information!