Sunday reader: Boeing MAX handling a case study in crisis communications

Boeing 737 MAX 7 First Flight (photo: Boeing).

(UPDATE: This story has been updated with new information from Boeing. The company released a statement Sunday, no longer expressing confidence in the safety of their planes. See below.)

It’s fair to say Boeing had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

One of their most popular aircraft, the 737 Max, crashed just after takeoff outside the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. One hundred fifty-seven people were killed, including 18 Canadians, and what’s worse, it was the second deadly crash in less than five months.

For Boeing, the stakes were high. It had already sold more than 5,000 Max aircraft, and new planes, in modern aviation, simply don’t fall from the sky, let alone twice in such a short period.

Jim Stanton, a top communications advisor in Canada has a strategy for companies going through rough patches: When you mess up, fess up and dress up.

If only Boeing had heard the message.

From the crash, which Boeing could not directly control, to the eventual grounding of the Max around the world, the company’s handling of the crisis was at odds with successful crisis responses by other companies in the past.

Let’s take the most famous – if not the best – apology in aviation history.

Valentine’s Day 2007. Freezing rain hit New York, where JetBlue centred its hub at John F. Kennedy Airport. Expecting the forecast to change, JetBlue staff loaded their planes and sent them to line up for takeoff. But the forecast didn’t change, and only 17 of 156 scheduled flights were able to depart, sending shockwaves through JetBlue’s operations. It took six days for operations to get back to normal.

The result: 131,000 people had their travel plans severely disrupted. JetBlue’s image and reputation took a battering.

What was their response? Perhaps the best corporate apology ever crafted. Chief executive David Neeleman wrote a heartfelt and personal letter.

Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue’s seven year history. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences. The storm disrupted the movement of aircraft, and, more importantly, disrupted the movement of JetBlue’s pilot and inflight crew members who were depending on those planes to get them to the airports where they were scheduled to serve you.
Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.

Letter from David Neeleman to affected JetBlue customers

Neeleman was everywhere after that, explaining how mortified he was by the whole experience. And he set about making it right, not only for those who were affected in the past, but also issuing a Passenger Bill of Rights that set out when and how JetBlue would compensate passengers in the future.

What did JetBlue get right? Here’s a list:

  • They immediately apologized and offered compensation
  • They offered a full refund and round-trip tickets
  • They were transparent about what went wrong, and what they were doing to make it right
  • The leader was visible in the media and seemingly willing to answer all questions
  • The company introduced a Passenger Bill of Rights to show what it would do in the future.

Let’s compare that with Boeing’s reaction to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302.

The first mention the company made of anything going wrong came on Boeing’s Twitter account early Sunday morning, confirming the company had heard reports of a crash, without any details.

Two hours later, Boeing again took to social media to express the company’s sadness as the Ethiopian Airlines crash was confirmed with the death of everyone on board. Boeing also confirmed a technical team was ready to provide support to investigators who would try to figure out what went so horribly wrong.

So far, a very humane response to the tragedy.

Four hours later, Boeing repeated its sadness at the crash, and confirmed technicians would be travelling to Ethiopia to help investigators.

Within hours, China became the first country – and largest overseas Boeing 737 Max market – to ground the fleet, citing similarities with the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October that killed 189 people.

The other realization, which was dawning on the aviation world – and, truth be told, the general public – brand new airplanes simply don’t fall out of the sky.

In a show of sympathy for people who lost their lives, Boeing postponed a key public marketing event: unveiling the 777X.

Already, questions were being raised on social media whether flying on the Max was actually safe. Passengers wanted to know if their flight would be on a Max, and if it was, if they could change to another frame.

Individual airlines started grounding their Max planes. Cayman Airways was the first, followed (in rapid succession) by Indonesia and Australia. More and more joined the action.

This is also where Boeing’s communications strategy started to go pear-shaped.

On Monday March 11, as controversy about the Max was swirling and regulators around the world were debating whether to follow China’s lead, Boeing issued a news release confirming it was working on a software fix for the Max in the wake of the Lion Air crash.

“For the past several months and in the aftermath of Lion Air Flight 610, Boeing has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX,” said the release, “designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer. This includes updates to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.”

In that same release, instead of getting out in front of the issue, Boeing chose instead to double down. In reaffirming its confidence in the safety of the Max aircraft.

The company reiterated that it felt the Max was a safe aircraft, despite public apprehension to the contrary. Boeing also said the software update would come out in April, and that “It is important to note that the FAA is not mandating any further action at this time.”

The next morning, March 12, Boeing was once again reiterating its faith in the Max aircraft.

A few hours later, a blow for Boeing. The United Kingdom banned the Max from its airspace, followed by several other European countries.

Then, a headline that had critics questioning – if not outright alleging – if Boeing wasn’t more interested in money than in saving lives – a brutal combination for any country.

Boeing’s chief executive Dennis A. Muilenburg called Donald Trump, the U.S. President, asking him to keep the Max in the air. What was a human tragedy and economic risk had become a political time bomb.

By evening, all of Europe was off limits to the Max, leaving only two large aviation markets – Canada and the United States – allowing the Max to fly.

By the next morning, even that shaky coalition had crumbled. Canada grounded the Max.

A short time later, Muilenburg would call Trump once more and concede the obvious – it was time to ban the type world-wide.

But the move may have come too late. By Wednesday, trust in Boeing, and the Federal Aviation Administration that regulates the industry, was seriously eroded.

One day later, March 14th, Boeing was back on to its positive sales spin, announcing a deal with Lufthansa for 20 B787 Dreamliner aircraft.

“Lufthansa Group is one of the most respected and innovative companies in the airline industry. We are extremely honored that they have again chosen to build their future with Boeing’s widebody jet family and we greatly look forward to delivering the 787 Dreamliner and the new 777X to Lufthansa in the coming years,” said Kevin McAllister, president & CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

So if we compare JetBlue’s crisis handling with Boeing’s, we get the following.

JetBlue crisis responseBoeing crisis response
They immediately apologized and offered compensation.Expressed deep sadness for the victims. No apology or compensation offered.
They offered a full refund and round-trip tickets.Boeing sent technicians to Ethiopia to support investigation efforts.
They were transparent about what went wrong, and what they were doing to make it right.Issued news release about updated software for the Max aircraft.
The leader was visible in the media and seemingly willing to answer all questions.Company appeared in news headlines, and seemingly trying to influence regulators to keep their planes in the air.
The company introduced a Passenger Bill of Rights to show what it would do in the future.Company continued to stress, even after the Max was grounded world-wide, their confidence in the safety of the aircraft.

UPDATE:

On Sunday, Boeing issued its first statement from chief executive. In it, Dennis Muilenburg responds to comments by the Ethiopian government, emphasizing similarities between the two recent crashes of Max aircraft.

Still no apology, but Muilenburg tellingly does not re-state Boeing’s faith in the safety of the Max, a softening of the line adhered to in the first days following the crash.

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