Dissecting Boeing’s early response to the 737 crisis

Boeing has been slow to respond to a serious crisis that could damage its reputation for a long, long time.


Boeing is in full-on crisis mode following the deadly crashes of two 737 Max 8 aircraft just a few months apart, prompting concern among airline employees and anxiety in passengers worried about their safety. A catchy phrase is already circulating on social media: “If it’s Boeing, I’m not going!”

There’s so much in Boeing’s public response that deserves to be put under a microscope, but it’s approaching 1am in Hong Kong and I need to be up early tomorrow. So while this is exactly the kind of issue I’d love to write about at length, I can’t stay up all night! I figured I’d better post something while it’s fresh on my mind, at least.

Here’s the latest: on March 13, several countries began grounding their entire Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, including Australia, China, Canada, the UK, and others, following two deadly crashes, one off the coast of Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia, in the span of three months. If you need to get caught up, here’s a primer.

The fallout for Boeing has been swift, with the company’s shares pummelled on Wall Street and panicky travelers frantically checking pre-booked flights to see if they’ll be on a 737 Max. Those two factors merely mark the beginning of the crisis — unfortunately for Boeing, the pain is going to get a lot worse.

There has naturally been a lot of focus on the 737 hardware and software, and whether there were any flaws missed during production or inherent flaws in the design that were never picked up ahead of time. That’s an important part of the story, to be sure, but for Boeing it’s almost secondary. As PR flaks like to say, “perception is reality”, because if people perceive danger on board a 737 Max, then it may as well be dangerous — they won’t be buying tickets on it either way. That means Boeing has two big problems to solve: 1) actually investigating the incidents and fixing any issues that may be discovered during that process; and 2) dealing with the huge blow to the trust and goodwill the company has earned over many decades. It’s the second problem that will be the toughest to fix.

While many companies, especially those as large and consequential as Boeing, often pour serious money and resources into crisis communications, nobody is prepared when the real thing happens.

Most concerning are the mixed messages coming from the company. It has repeatedly declared the plane to be safe, despite the fact debris is still on the ground and investigations are just beginning. By being so sure about the plane’s safety so early in the process, Boeing has painted itself into a corner, giving it little room to manouever should even the smallest flaw be brought to light later. At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airlines in the United States, has ordered Boeing to fast-track a software update that is directly related to the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), the key component that is suspected of malfunctioning in the crashes. Even worse, several pilots filed their own reports to complain about problems with the new 737s, including the MCAS.

Boeing’s communications team obviously has a lot more information than I do, but faced with these two facts alone I would be reluctant to resolutely declare the planes to be safe so soon. Theoretically, if a third crash happened (knock on wood), Boeing could potentially be found liable if it was determined the company was negligent or authorized the 737 Max to continue flying while aware of potentially life-threatening risks.

And lastly, this point should go without saying: It’s not a good look to stand on TV while families are grieving and plane debris is still scattered near Addis Ababa saying, “But the planes are safe!”

So what should Boeing do? Its number one task is restoring the public’s trust in the company. Incidents like these, if not managed well, can seriously damage a brand’s reputation for a very, very long time. A good reputation can take decades to build, and seconds to destroy.

Boeing needs to start by showing it understands the criticism and concern among its passengers, and reiterate that passenger safety is the most sacred part of their job and their biggest responsibility. Then, be clear about the next steps: Boeing could say that the incidents don’t appear to be caused by a flaw with the aircraft, and no information has come to light to indicate that the 737 is inherently unsafe. Then, maybe something like this:

Nevertheless, when human lives are on the line, we want to be 100% sure, which is why we will undertake an exhaustive investigation to ensure no stone is left unturned. When it comes to passenger safety – and saving lives – we will bring in as many experts and analysts as required and give them as much time as they need to complete the investigation properly. It’s better to be thorough than fast.

Finally, after sufficiently hammering on those messages at every chance, Boeing could reserve a bit of space for some defense — namely, putting these two crashes in perspective.

It seems like everyone with flights already booked are spooked about getting on one of the new 737s. In customers’ minds, the two crashes and potential design flaw are threats to their family vacation or upcoming business trip. To counter this, and try and bring the anxiety and fear down a few notches, Boeing could show how many 737 Max 8s are in the sky at any given time, or how many are in service around the world. I already envision this on a large digital map, with flights shown around the world safely shuttling passengers to their destination in real time. The percentage of fatal crashes would be a fraction of a fraction – infinitesimally small – and hopefully give people some comfort. The number would be simple, easy to remember, and maybe resonate with them.

News coverage makes threats seem personal and almost imminent – whether its ISIS, Ebola, or faulty aircraft. Boeing could push back on this without sounding defensive provided it sufficiently communicates its understanding of the gravity of the situation, recognizes that it will need to once again earn the trust of passengers, and lay out its plans to do better in the future. 

I’m going to bed.






Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.