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Crisis Management Missteps: This Time, It’s Boeing

Major corporations continue to ignore the simplest rules.

Boeing’s brand is taking a beating after two of their new 737 Max aircrafts crashed in less than five months. Some of the backlash from regulators, politicians, investors, and the public was inevitable given that 346 lives were lost—and the airplanes were basically new.

But similar to past crises reactions in other companies, Boeing made things worse by ignoring basic crisis management and communications protocols. Remaining silent immediately after an airline disaster is normal, until initial facts can be gathered. Boeing did that—but then they mis-stepped, badly.

Their initial response to the October 29, 2018, crash of Lion Air Flight 610 was to point fingers at the pilots and deny that there could be anything wrong with the airplane. This response seemed to be one of legal posturing and blame shifting. By most accounts, Boeing’s public relations response at the time was bureaucratic, slow and clumsy.

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Then, to make matters worse, when regulators began demanding that 737 Max planes be grounded, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg made a personal call to President Trump to attempt to delay an FAA grounding of the planes. Oh my!

Experts were surprised at Boeing’s handling of this crisis due to the fact that their response to the grounding of their 787 Dreamliners in 2013 due to overheating batteries was almost textbook perfect. (They immediately identified the problem, developed a solution, and rolled it out, fleet-wide, in record time.)

So what happened this time? Did they lose their plan, or did they just ignore it? It’s hard to say, but they are not the only major corporation that has seemingly forgotten its crisis management plan—or maybe never had an effective one. Here are a few examples:

  • BP’s response to the largest oil spill in history in 2011 was to deny responsibility and blame contractors. Then their CEO was quoted as saying “I just want my life back.” I guess it was all about him.
  • United Airlines’ weak and “callous” 2017 response when passenger David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight ended up being bloodied and bruised.
  • Delta Airlines initially reacted well and quickly apologized after two women got into a physical brawl in Atlanta. A Delta pilot interceded and, at one point, slapped one of the women. Delta, surprisingly, later defended the pilot for “de-escalating” the incident and returned him to duty.
  • Starbucks culture was criticized as being weak for allowing a manager to call 911 and request the removal of two black customers from her restaurant for “not paying.” As it turns out, the gentlemen were waiting for a friend and hadn’t ordered anything. Later, however, Starbucks was praised for closing all of their stores for one afternoon for corporate-wide racial bias training. Recovery is possible.

Crisis management and communications basics are fairly straightforward:

  • React immediately
  • Be sympathetic and empathetic
  • Have the highest-ranking individual possible serve as the company spokesperson, preferably the CEO
  • Take care of victims quickly and completely
  • Err on the side of doing too much, not too little
  • Empower customer contact employees to “do the right thing, right now”
  • Don’t direct blame
  • Train all employees in proper responses, then train them again.

Some, if not all of these basics, were missed in the cases of BP, Boeing, United, Delta and Starbucks. These are just a few examples. Doing and saying the right thing in a crisis is simple. It’s amazing that major corporations continue to miss those basics.

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