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Lessons From Boeing’s Ongoing PR Crisis

Boeing’s failure to respond appropriately, and its negative impact on reputation, offers a valuable lesson to business leaders about the importance of crisis communications. Three things all CEOs should keep in mind.

Even with the best-laid plans, things go wrong—and it is always better to be prepared than to be caught off-guard. For CEOs of large multinational corporations, it is even more critical to have a strong crisis response plan in place well before the onset of a crisis, as the public nature of some of these incidents can cause irreparable damage to an organization’s reputation. Boeing’s recent PR nightmare perfectly illustrates that need.

Understanding the nature of Boeing’s crisis

In January, Boeing found itself under intense scrutiny when a portion of the fuselage on one of its planes operated by Alaska Airlines blew out mid-flight, prompting the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground the model until inspections could be conducted. Meanwhile, the FAA also opened an investigation to determine Boeing’s role in the incident.

Boeing’s response to this crisis has been unilaterally negative, with some even going as far as calling it incompetent. The company’s only response thus far has been to say that they will cooperate with any investigations and be “100% transparent” about the situation.

Of course, in a crisis, one doesn’t know all of the answers right away. It takes time to understand what happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. However, considering Boeing’s poor reputation for mishandling similar crises, the public has begun to distrust the manufacturer.

The situation was further complicated for Boeing by external factors that kept the issue in the news, including a skit on “Saturday Night Live” that parodied the incident and the fact that passenger videos have gone viral on social media. Relatively speaking, the incident itself was not terribly severe—there were no deaths nor any serious injuries—but the fact that the cultural zeitgeist continues to remind the public of the issue makes it a bigger issue than it actually is.

How crisis communications can help Boeing endure

The level to which this crisis has impacted Boeing’s image shows the importance of crisis communication for a company, the purpose of which is to achieve and maintain control over a less-than-desirable situation. If Boeing had gained control over the situation and issued a more appropriate response before the powers-that-be in pop culture got hold of it, we probably wouldn’t still be talking about this situation.

The fundamental aspect of success in a crisis response is timeliness, which is why CEOs must ensure that the timing of their business’s crisis response is suitable. The best crisis responses have the company jump into action quickly to acknowledge the situation and begin steps toward reparation and mitigation.

As such, it is best for a business to plan its crisis response during a time of relative calm. A strong crisis response plan is flexible enough to be adapted to the unique challenges of specific circumstances but developed enough to allow the business’s leaders to jump quickly into action. By planning for particular types of crises in advance, businesses can maintain control over the situation.

For example, as a company that makes airplanes, Boeing should have been prepared for a crisis involving a malfunctioning part because, statistically speaking, accidents are inevitable. That being said, it is crucial not to reveal too much information too early. Doing so can make the public think the business knew about the situation before it happened and, therefore, is entirely at fault.

Boeing’s biggest mistake in its crisis response was not learning from previous mistakes. After controversy in 2018 and 2019, when two of the company’s planes crashed due to defects, Boeing promised change and improved safety measures. Although it was incredibly fortunate that no one was seriously harmed in this most recent accident, it was just that—luck. Had someone been sitting closer to the portion of the plane that was exposed, if someone had not been using their seatbelt or if the incident occurred at a higher altitude, things could have turned out much worse, all of which only serves to make the public trust Boeing even less.

However, what Boeing did correctly with its crisis response was maintain consistency in its messaging. By deferring to the comments made by CEO Dave Calhoun, the Boeing team ensures that all of the communication comes from one source. The CEO’s job, especially during a crisis, is to steer the ship. As the organization’s leader, they are often the face of the company and are responsible for ensuring that the messaging is consistent. This could mean routing all communication through themselves or designating another person as the key point of contact — such as a communications director or legal counsel.

Boeing’s failure to respond to this crisis appropriately and its negative impact on its reputation offers a valuable lesson to business leaders about the importance of crisis communications. In times of crisis, it is essential to gain control of the situation before it balloons out of control — and in an era where everyone is increasingly connected via the internet and social media, a crisis can spiral incredibly quickly. Having a response plan in place is the best way for you to lead your company through the dangerous waters of a crisis. Three things CEOs should keep in mind:

1. Effective communication is crucial. Prioritize timely communication during difficult times. Boeing’s management of safety concerns and regulatory issues has come under scrutiny, emphasizing the need for discussions with stakeholders to rebuild trust and credibility.

2. Focus on safety and responsibility. It is essential for CEOs to foster a culture of safety and responsibility within their organization. Boeing’s public relations crisis was fueled by worries about aircraft safety, coupled with accusations of negligence and lack of accountability. Showing a dedication to safety and ensuring accountability can help restore reputation and trust.

3. Adopt a proactive approach to crisis management. Address crises before they escalate. Boeing’s reactive response to safety issues has worsened its PR difficulties. Companies can better navigate times and safeguard their brand reputation by implementing crisis management strategies and regularly assessing risks.


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