Boeing: A Case Study in How Not to Manage Your PR

As one of corporate America’s most recognizable brands, you would think Boeing would be well-poised to deal with public relations crises of all shapes and sizes. Indeed, as a major exporter and military contractor, Boeing has deep pockets when it comes to lobbying in Washington; you would think this kind of spending would carry through to the firm’s PR department.

Still, for all the scrutiny Boeing faced in the wake of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and the immediate, wholesale grounding of its 737 Max planes worldwide, the firm remained remarkably tight-lipped from the outset.

Sure, Boeing issued brief statements expressing sympathy to those affected personally by the crash, and muttered statements in support of its plans. The firm communicated quietly with the news media and government officials, and Boeing chief executive Dennis A. Muilenburg stayed out of sight for more than a week.

In fact, Muilenburg’s first public comments of any merit came in the form of a statement released more than a week following the tragic crash in Ethiopia, despite the swell of public outcry having already reached substantial levels by that stage. Even then, his comments did little to quell international indignation.

“Their comments have been very engineering-esque,” says Richard Levick, founder of Washington-based crisis communications firm Levick, “There has been no human face to this.”

Late last month, Boeing was forced to face the music. In Washington, two Senate subcommittees held hearings to discuss federal oversight of the aviation industry, with the witness list including the transportation secretary, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

At the same time, Boeing finally turned on the jets of its charm offensive, holding a media briefing followed by a factory tour. Boeing executives then met with some 200 pilots, airline executives and regulators to review proposed changes to the offending 737 Max.

By then, however, the damage had been done: in addition to some $40 billion in lost market value, Boeing has proven itself inept at handling a PR crisis.

For example, in the wake of the Ethiopian crash, Boeing insisted on immediately standing by the airworthiness of the 737 Max, even as regulators all over the world took the jetliner out of service. When the US President tweeted his concerns over the aircraft, Muilenburg called him to urge him to keep the planes in the air.

Meanwhile, however, Boeing failed to make Muilenburg or any other executives available for comment.

In the face of such stubborn opacity, the consumer response was swift and predictable: travellers scheduled to fly on 737 Maxes requested to switch planes, and travel website Kayak added a feature allowing shoppers to sort flights by plane type.

Boeing’s belated and insufficient attempts to seize the narrative must serve as a PR lesson, whatever the industry. The idea is simple: stay human, stay transparent, and make sure your message is an effective one to compete with the inevitable onslaught of negative press coming your way.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian. 5W Public Relations is a leading NYC based PR Agency.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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