Boeing’s response to the recent tragedies is a case study of what not to do in crisis communications. A cardinal rule in crisis PR is to guide the narrative before others guide it for you, and they have done the opposite. They have waited for others to tell the story.
What started as concerns and doubts over the plane’s safety has turned into a political issue and a global issue that demands their planes be grounded.
Boeing is not acknowledging the real impact of this situation. Instead of clearly addressing fearful customers, they lobbied President Trump about the plane’s safety—a huge PR misstep. This gives the appearance that profits matter more than people’s lives. There is a perception now that Boeing’s $1 million pledge to President Trump somehow “makes up” for the lost lives from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 407 and Lion Air Flight 610.
Surely Boeing’s team is concerned about the safety of their planes, but it doesn’t look like it. It is very understandable why people don’t want to fly on a plane which may crash, and Boeing’s handling of this issue will haunt them for years to come.
Boeing is not only in the business of selling airplanes, they are in the business of selling safety. If there are doubts about whether people are safe, their business, stock price and reputation are irreputably harmed.
Im 1982, when someone poisoned Tylenol, the company issued an immediate product recall. They got to the bottom of what went wrong.
Boeing needs to do more than just say they are investigating what went wrong. They need to show sympathy to victims, and empathy to nervous passengers. Boeing faces a very difficult public relations challenge in the days, weeks and months to come.
Boeing needs to stress safety, safety, safety. And that they will not rest – or fly – until they know everything is safe. Profit must never take precedence over life and death.
Ultimately, Boeing is aware that there’s two courts – a court of law and a court of public opinion. They are aware they are potentially facing lawsuits from the families of those who died on their planes, from airlines who bought and no longer want their product and others. That will take years. The court of public opinion won’t wait that long.