As the New York Times reported last month, the response from Boeing to two fatal plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia left a lot to be desired – the desire, that is, for any response at all. Initially, Boeing stuck by their 737 Max aircraft, as well as their traditional policy of relying on employees rather than public relations firms to manage a crisis. No Boeing executives were made available for interviews, however.
Consumers made it clear the lack of communication wasn’t going to work for them.
Airlines were inundated with inquiries and flight changes or cancellations due to customers’ uncertainty surrounding the safety of the jet. Booking services like Kayak introduced a new filter allowing users to sort flights by aircraft type. Regulators around the world began grounding the planes.
Executives and employees from the airlines also expressed frustration with Boeing. When CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg finally did gather some of them together for a March 23rd meeting with Boeing leadership, the president of Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association said he expected to be in “more regular communication” with the manufacturer.
Meanwhile, just two days after the second crash, Muilenburg had called President Trump with the reassurance that the planes were airworthy and encouraging him not to ground the planes. The optics were so bad, Trump announced the FAA was grounding the 737 Max the very next day.
A week later, Boeing retained the services of a New York crisis communications firm, Sard Verbinnen. Now, there’s a designated page on Boeing’s website with both typed and video statements, as well as an FAQ with questions such as “Does Boeing charge for safety features?” outlining the ins and outs of the Max’s in-flight display panel.
While this might be considered a somewhat impersonal approach, there have been other steps in the right direction. On March 27, as Senators in Washington held two separate hearings on federal aviation industry oversight, Boeing led reporters through a factory tour, then hosted an informational meeting with airlines and regulators.
So, what are the takeaways? First, an affirmation really, of the old adage: communication is key – perhaps more now than ever, when public figures can reach audiences instantaneously, it doesn’t look good when they don’t. Which brings us to the second, more revelatory lesson: in the world of public relations, no news is no longer good news.
Consumers today expect companies to connect with them proactively, on a personal and personable level. Millennials expect companies to also care about things no large demographic ever has, like environmental impacts and inequality. So, when 300 people die due to negligence on the part of a multinational corporation, that corporation’s CEO can’t just keep his head down in the news and social media while making behind-the-scenes calls to the US President asking for a free pass; at least, not without looking tone-deaf.