Why Boeing Needs to Heed 3,000 Year Old Advice


3,000 years ago, Aristotle defined the three pillars of trust:

• Perception of knowledge and expertise

• Perception of openness and honesty

• Perception of concern and care

By Aristotle’s definition, Boeing has a long way to go before the public learns to trust them again.

As communicators, there are things we can control and things we can’t. The loss of 346 lives in two plane crashes just five months apart is a prime example. Both horrific accidents were caused by a system malfunction on Boeing’s 737 MAX planes that overrode the pilots’ attempt to course-correct and threw the planes into a death spiral.

Too Fast and Too Slow

Boeing had an all-new plane in development when Airbus released their new A320 jet. Anxious to put out a competitive product, Boeing tabled their new aircraft, opting to upgrade their 50-year old 737 design with new engines.

The larger engines made the souped-up 737 MAX more likely to stall. To offset that risk, Boeing developed the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. It is this system that malfunctioned in both crashes.

Boeing cranked out an unprecedented 52 planes a month in their rush to market. Clearly, the company moved too fast.

In the aftermath of both crashes, Boeing made the opposite mistake: Their public response was way too slow.

Never Make Statements You Can’t Back Up

Boeing put out a brief statement on Twitter the day the Lion Air crash occurred. However, it took them a full week to release a follow-up bulletin detailing what pilots should do in the event of an MCAS failure. After that, the company waited for the release of a preliminary report about the crash to make another statement.

That statement pointed to potential maintenance mistakes and pilot error and declared that “the 737 MAX is as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies.”

30 Days Late

After the second crash occurred, Boeing took nearly a month to respond and owned up to the MCAS issue. Buried in their release was an admission that they knew, right after the first accident, that an MCAS malfunction was involved.

“Thoughts and Prayers” Trope

Boeing followed up with a video statement more than three months after the second crash, with the company’s commercial division CEO Kevin McCallister offering the victims Boeing’s “thoughts and prayers” – a trope that has been turned into a punch-line by anti-gun activists.

The most recent communication came from Boeing Chairman, President, and CEO Dennis Muelenberg. He pledged $100 million, to be disbursed over several years independent of lawsuits filed, to the families of the survivors. Again, the timing was awful.

Regaining Trust

When a crisis involves loss of life, there is a very thin slice of time for a company to take the high road, admit mistakes, and salvage their reputation.

For the public to regain trust, there has to first be an admission of guilt – a nuance often left to attorneys whose job it is to mitigate risk and protect a company’s fiscal assets. Public perception is something attorneys sometimes take on, but in my experience, need more training to do effectively.

As difficult as it maybe, it’s the communicator’s job to protect the company’s reputation and push back. To me, that is just as important as who wins in court. Here’s my take in a Fortune article on the subject.

Boeing should have responded more swiftly, sincerely, and soul-searchingly after the first crash. The company’s leaders could have been proactive by admitting that the MCAS may have played a role in the crash and immediately announcing an internal investigation.

Notably, CEO Dennis Muellenberg, could have refrained from asking President Trump not to ground the 737 MAX after it was grounded by the EU.

Empathy Required

Most importantly, Boeing could have offered compensation immediately after the second crash and recognized families of the victims more respectfully.

Knowledge and expertise, openness and honesty, and concern and care is the recipe for crisis management. Heed Atistotle’s 3,000 year-old advice and implement the modern-day version of the three pilliars of trust.

What do you think Boeing will do next? Tell me what you think about how Boeing handled this crisis.

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