Following the tragic deaths of 346 people aboard its 737 MAX aircraft in 2018 and 2019, and the subsequent global grounding of the fleet and tens of billions in fines, compensation and losses, Boeing has been working to rebuild its safety reputation.
The old slogan ‘If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going’ is an adage the airline would love to reclaim, so it’s unfortunate but not surprising that the event relating to the 5 January 737 MAX 9 door plug blow-out on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 attracted so much attention.
Airplane manufacturers and airlines are no strangers to crises, and below we’ve dissected the corporate and media responses to this latest crisis. Here’s how the matter played out to the public.
The vivid footage of the door plug incident, taken onboard by passengers, immediately went viral on social media, which significantly amplified the desire for observers to learn more about what had happened via other forms of media.
Boeing’s first response was to issue an ‘acknowledgement’ holding statement:
SEATTLE, Jan. 5, 2024 – “We are aware of the incident involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. We are working to gather more information and are in contact with our airline customer. A Boeing technical team stands ready to support the investigation.”
On Saturday 6 January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered the temporary grounding of some 737 Max 9s operated by US airlines or in US territories, while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continued investigating.
Boeing then issued its second holding statement:
SEATTLE, Jan. 6, 2024 – “Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers. We agree with and fully support the FAA's decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane. In addition, a Boeing technical team is supporting the NTSB's investigation into the Jan. 5 accident. We will remain in close contact with our regulator and customers.”
Boeing shares fell by $20 or 8% to $229 by the following Monday’s close of trade.
Amid the evolving investigations relating to Boeing’s 737-9 aircraft, Boeing CEO, David Calhoun, acknowledged the company’s “mistake” in the wake of the incident during a staff meeting on Tuesday 10 January.
“We’re going to approach this [by]—number one—acknowledging our mistake... I got kids, I got grandkids, so do you. This stuff matters… every detail matters... We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way..”
Extensive coverage forced a comment from the government, with the White House saying that President Biden was personally tracking the grounding of many Boeing 737 Max 9 planes.
Rebuilding Strategy: Crisis Playbook Selected
Contrary to how Boeing handled its last crises, it is currently using a ‘rebuilding’ strategy. The fast acknowledgment of the incident, proactive communication with a priority for total transparency and keeping its investors/stakeholders in the loop have garnered headlines such as, “Boeing CEO takes responsibility for Alaska Airlines incident” by mainstream press.
Despite the crisis damaging the company’s reputation and share price, the effective handling of the situation and its decision to take full ownership of its mistake allows the business to skip a potential news cycle focusing on blame and move straight into rebuilding.
In contrast – and we acknowledge the ethical, legal and technical complications relating to a fatal crash investigation – it took Boeing three weeks to issue the following statement after the 29 October 2018 Lion Air incident, when 189 people tragically lost their lives:
- We are deeply saddened by the loss of Lion Air Flight JT 610. We extend our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of those on board.
- We are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved.
- We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX. Safety remains our top priority and is a core value for everyone at Boeing
- While we can’t discuss specifics of an on-going investigation, we have provided two updates for our operators around the world that re-emphasize existing procedures for these situations
Naturally, the brand sentiment observed during this period has been overwhelmingly negative. This is expected;, the potential success of this rebuilding strategy will be measured by how quickly the brand recovers in the eyes of its publics. Choosing to acknowledge the incident quickly, making its position clear to stakeholders and taking responsibility quickly will allow it to move ahead.
While we’re not suggesting Boeing’s 18 January release, announcing the order of 150 737 MAX jets to India’s Akasa Air, was brought forward, it is notable that the company has a BAU approach to commercial announcements relating to the same line of aircraft.
No official media release has been published, relating to the 5 January incident, since the day after the crash.
There are myriad customer and stakeholder communications options open to corporations experiencing a crisis. While on the surface observers may agree with or object to the responses they read, this may relate solely to a communications team’s desired crisis management strategy and execution.
Legal and financial liabilities, board objections, personal opinions of brand leaders, investor relations and reputation management are all factors that come together to form a confluence of directives that communications professionals must work with to best serve their clients and mitigate negative impact.
No matter what industry your business operates in, gather your communications professionals together and work on hypothetical scenarios. Adopt Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Anisha Samanta is a senior account executive in the Sydney office