The news today that the Federal Aviation Administration has lifted its ban on Boeing’s 737 MAX marks the end of one chapter of this crisis for the airplane manufacturer and the beginning of another. The company must now convince airline companies to return the planes to service, buy new ones, and overcome the fear people have in flying on them.
None of this is likely to be easy.
“The public will not accept a corporate statement that all is OK, [that] the planes are safe, and it is time to move on,” according to Jeffrey Davis of J. Davis Public Relations in Baltimore, Maryland.
Caroline Sapriel, managing partner of crisis management firm CS&A International, said “It will take time and this black mark on their history may never be completely erased.” She compared it to Exxon that “will forever be associated with the Exxon Valdez disaster, with BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and others who have failed to demonstrate values and leadership in times of crises.”
Transparency will be important is helping to restore public trust.
Boeing will need to explain the steps they are taking, and not just announce that the planes can fly again, Davis noted. “The company needs to demonstrate how they will ensure the safety procedures are in place, what they entail, and the literal steps they are taking. Show pilots in training classes and in flight simulators. Interview the CEO onboard the first flight. The public will want to see these steps in action.”
Boeing should “share the facts, explain the process that they went through with the regulators, and offer details on what went into developing and installing the new technology and what makes it better,” Davis recommended.
The pandemic has made some people more concerned about the planes on which they travel — if they even feel safe flying on them at all. Anthony Berklich, a travel expert and founder of InspiredCitizen.com, noted that many air travelers are hyper-aware of nuances that they might not have perceived before Covid-19.
“The grounding of the Boeing 737-MAX planes is on their radar and they don’t necessarily feel comfortable flying it,” he said. Several clients for whom he planned luxury international trips looked into the make and model of planes. Two clients said that before they could trust the planes again, they would wait at least a year after the jets resumed flying to make sure there were no problems.
“Airlines who plan to put these planes into service immediately will need to spend money to combat the negative press and reassure passengers,” Berklich said. “Right now, passengers are booking majorly on trust and promise from these companies and the last thing they need is for potential passengers to feel misguided or put into jeopardy by sliding the Boeing 737 MAX back into service without informing them of enhanced safety and training to make the trips safe.”
Mark Dombroff, a partner at Fox Rothschild who has worked on aviation-related matters, said “The real issue now for airlines is how they introduce [the 737 MAX] back into their systems in a way that builds confidence of the traveling public.
“There will be a segment of the public that will be concerned – so do they ‘ showcase’ the reintroduction as the ‘safest airplane ever built’, change its name from MAX, introduce it ‘stealthily’ with no announcements, etc. Another issue is getting approvals from foreign airworthiness authorities since several have announced that they’ll make independent judgments and not simply accept the FAA approval,” Dombroff said.
A Poor Job So Far
Robert Britton is an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches courses on crisis management. He is a former managing director of advertising and marketing planning for American Airlines, a job he started two weeks after 9/11.
He said “Boeing and the larger airline ecosystem have managed the crisis poorly. I teach courses in crisis management and for the past year I’ve used Boeing as an example of what not to do. Their disregard for best practices in crisis management has been disappointing. No sense of humanity, no visibility, no transparency.
“And, perhaps worse, [they’ve made no] effort to tell the larger story – without minimizing the MAX crisis – that the company has been building increasingly safer and better aircraft for more than 100 years, and its design and engineering acumen, over that century, has helped airlines worldwide build a safety record that is truly astonishing,” Britton observed.
Lessons for Business Leaders
The events leading up and after the crashes of two 737 MAXs continue to provide important lessons for business executives on the best or worst ways to manage a crisis.
“Tragically, accidents of such magnitude hopefully draw lessons for the future not only for the aviation sector, but for all organizations,” according to Sapriel of CS&A International.
“When a crisis hits, leaders must first and foremost take ownership, show empathy, apologize quickly and protect credibility among stakeholders if it hopes to retain their trust. Ultimately actions and words must be aligned, so ‘walking the talk and talking the walk’ are absolutely essential to prevent a reputation meltdown, to survive and hopefully to emerge stronger on the other side,” she said.
Katarina Matic, director of public affairs at Monteith & Company, said “One of the biggest mistakes companies make is thinking that communication alone is the key to solving a crisis. The key is both fixing the root of the crisis and instilling confidence and trust in its stakeholders. This crisis required a multi-faceted stakeholder engagement and communications strategy that is both timely and focused,” she said.
“Boeing’s stress test should be to put themselves in the shoes of the consumer, investor, an airline company, and ask: ‘Would I put my life, my investment, and my company in Boeing’s hands?’ A crisis mitigation strategy is only successful if Boeing’s answer is yes,” Matic said.