Boeing’s Crisis PR Response: Do Not Copy

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

There are five ways during my career as a reporter, editor and PR pro that stand out as ways an entity or individual responded to a PR crisis.   They are:

  • Being aggressive and unleashing a pro-active campaign extolling all the good done over many years that those receiving negative media coverage received. (Example: For years, the National Football League attempted to downplay the concussion issue by highlighting its community and charitable endeavors.)Note to Boeing: It didn’t work. (I call this technique, “The Robin Hood strategy.)
  • Trying to reassure its customers as Equifax and Facebook has done by publicly saying “we are sorry” and, in some cases, providing perks to users. Note to Boeing: It didn’t work.
  • Attempting to override past problems, as President Nixon did by writing books. Note to Boeing: It didn’t work.
  • Claiming innocent of all allegations, as President Trump now does on a daily basis. Note to Boeing: It doesn’t t work.
  • Blaming others, as BP did in the aftermath of its oil spill, when it tried to finger Transocean, (owner of the rig) for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Note to Boeing: It didn’t work.

Boeing didn’t learn from all of these.   

It can be assumed that Boeing liked the strategy of the last bullet by trying to put the blame on pilot error. That’s because the company has said its systems are safe. But there’s the Boeing PR problem of the day: 

Statement: During its annual meeting today, Dennis A. Muilenburg, who is the president, chairman and chief executive officer of The Boeing Company, said that the737 Max will be safest plane in the air when the fix to the automatic safety feature is completed.

PR problem with statement: It indicates that the plane wasn’t as safe as it should have been.

Statement: “These enduring values are at the core of everything we do,” Muilenburg said. “Yet, we know we can always be better. We have a responsibility to design, build and support the safest airplanes in the sky. The recent accidents have only intensified our dedication to it.

PR problem with statement: Two problems here. 1) News stories have reported that the 737 Max was not as safe as it could have been if airlines would have paid additional money for a safety feature. 2- The remarks read as if they came out of a PR 101 crisis playbook, instead of coming from the heart.

What was wrong with both statements were that they have been contradicted by news reports. Southwest Airlines says it wasn’t told that a safety feature on the Max was turned off until after the first crash. Also, there are reports that Boeing is being investigated regarding safety allegations by whistleblowers.

But the faulty PR crisis response did not start at today’s annual meeting. It began on March 17, when Muilenburg issued a pronouncement devoid of empathy following a statement from the Ethiopian Transport Minister after a 737 Max crash.

Boeing has been criticized by some PR crisis specialists for being slow to engage with the media. I’m not one of them. I see nothing wrong with waiting a day or two until a client in crisis can get a handle on the situation before engaging the press.

What I fault Boeing with is not keeping the public informed, through media updates while trying to solve its problems and, when issuing statements having them sound insincere.

My advice to clients in PR crisis situations is not to speak double talk but to tell the truth as soon as the cause of the problem is known. Then follow-up with statements on the company’s web site and have high executives engage the media only on important new developments.

A major mistake was Muhlenberg early-on was saying that the cause of the crashes was a technical problem that could have been prevented with better pilot training, as he attempted to keep the planes from being grounded.

As a Harvard Business Review article said on March 14, a better response would have been, “This is a technical problem that we do not fully understand. In light of that uncertainty, we recommend grounding the 737 Max 8s and 9s until we can be sure we know what is causing these crashes, and can satisfy ourselves and all of the global regulators that the plane is safe to fly again.” A remark like that would have positioned Boeing as a caring company.

By insisting that the panes were safe until Boeing was forced to ground them, Boeing is now considered a company where profits are more important than lives lost because of its products, and that’s a PR crisis that it will never live down.

It will, however, like BP, Equifax, Facebook, and so many other companies, provide examples of how not to tackle a PR crisis situation.

After weeks of reading about the problems at Boeing, I feel confident in saying about its PR crisis approach, it is not working.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

 

 

 

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