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Crisis Comms very much ‘up in the air’

The two recent tragedies involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft have raised many questions about the safety of this new model…

…and investigations are now fully underway to decide whether the incidents were connected and what the primary cause in each case was.

Regardless of the findings which emerge there is one fact of which we can be certain: the handling of the crisis so far by Boeing has been somewhat less than exemplary and illustrates just how important it is to have a good crisis communication plan at the ready when the unthinkable happens.

Denial is never a good look

OK, so there is no evidence at the moment to suggest that the core fault does indeed lie within the realms of the manufacturer – but that does not stop the eyes of the world turning towards them, almost in unison, to see what, if anything, they are going to offer as a temporary solution whilst final reports and recommendations are prepared.  Their initial reaction has been one of denial and this attitude, as history will confirm, does not tend to sit well with the general public, let alone the friends, families and colleagues of the 376 souls who lost their lives across both crashes.

Actions speak louder than words

More than 40 countries grounded their 737 Max 8 fleets within hours of the Addis Ababa accident, feeling that its occurrence, just five months after the initial crash in Java, was enough to justify such action.  Despite this, Boeing refused to accept the need to cease flying the aircraft in the USA and this decision was only overturned through Presidential intervention some three or four days later.  This is the point at which, in our opinion, Boeing lost full control of the situation; the application of sensible precautionary measures having to be carried out by someone other than them somewhat tarnished (or indeed ridiculed) their highly-publicised claim to be a corporation with safety as a core value.

Commercial considerations to one side please

Some may see Boeing’s failure to act quickly and decisively – and in fact to go against the opinion of the vast majority of their customers and stakeholders – as proof that they value profit over life and well-being (co-incidentally two other terms which appear within their list of core values).  As a side-effect of their inaction they also managed to show a huge amount of disrespect to those affected by both incidents, alienating themselves from a nervous general public who sought little more than reassurance that the protection of lives mattered more than anything else.

An unsurmountable challenge?

Boeing are now left with a situation from which many believe they cannot recover. The action (or lack of action) they have taken so far has created such strong negative impression that the pressure to now turn things around is of gargantuan proportions.  Even the virtue of their initial social media posts only hours after the crash to extend their sympathies was cancelled out almost immediately by their quick focus on technicalities, so there is very little positive collateral on which they can build.  There is a real need for them to take a step back and think carefully about every move they take as they go forward, both off and on line.  Social media will play a huge part in determining their future, not only in the posts which they themselves initiate but in their company’s reaction to the viral posts of others.  Everything associated with them must ooze sympathy, understanding and, most importantly, an acceptance that public safety is always the highest priority.

I wouldn’t start from here…

The ultimate outcome of these terrible tragedies will not be revealed for some time and we, just like everyone else, hope that the families of those involved get the answers they so desperately seek.

In terms of Boeing, their own survival depends as much on their actions as on the findings of the investigation.  One thing which we here at Rachel Hargrave Consulting know is that their lack of crisis planning, or indeed their failure to implement good crisis communications when called for, has put them in a truly unenviable situation.  Had things been handled differently from the outset they would have been in a much better position to take positive action and recover, even if blame is found to lie within the field of manufacture.  People will forgive mistakes (even with such dire consequences as we have seen here) provided they believe those involved have done their very best to respond to events and assist in the ultimate resolution.  Sadly for Boeing, this will be an uphill struggle of a magnitude seldom seen and one which is unlikely to be turned around, even by the most amazing PR campaign imaginable.

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Rachel Hargrave

Rachel has over 30 years of local, regional, national and international communications experience and expertise across a wide variety of clients including FTSE 100 companies, SMEs, micro businesses and start-ups. She also has extensive charity, Not-For-Profit and Community Interest Company experience and happily offers clients working in these areas a 50% discount on all RDZ PR rates.

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