2019 year in crisis: Boeing’s poor PR leads to sky-high reputation damage

by | Dec 12, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Boeing’s mishandling of the 737 Max crisis is almost legendary. We can already see future generations of PR students going over the missteps that the company made. In this post, we will analyze what happened, what the company did, and what it could have done better.

What happened?

Boeing is just over a hundred years old. Over that time, it has built up an impressive safety record. Pilots agree that this is one of the safest aircraft to fly. At least they used to think that. The reputation was set to change from the minute Boeing released the 737 Max model.

The first inkling of trouble came when the aircraft crashed soon after take-off in Indonesia on October 29, 2018. All 189 passengers and crew died as a result. According to investigators, the pilots had asked to fly back to the airport. The company reported that there was an unknown error.

The second crash was on March 10, 2019. Again, all 157 passengers and crew were killed.

Crash investigators concluded that the crashes were caused by the planes’ automatic safety systems. Apparently, the system overrode pilots’ attempts to lift the nose of the aircraft. The malfunction in the safety system caused the planes to nosedive and crash.

The FAA ordered Boeing to make changes to the system in March of 2019. It then proceeded to halt every Boeing 737 Max flight on a temporary basis.

2019 year in crisis: Boeing’s poor PR leads to sky-high reputation damage

Image by Albert Jaime Casanova from Pixabay 

Why are people so upset with Boeing?

Boeing initially tried to downplay the incidents and blamed it on pilot error. It later transpired that the company had never told anyone about the system in question. So, the pilots of those two flights had no training on it or any idea how to solve the problem.

What damaged the company’s reputation was the fact they knew about the flaw. It sold the planes anyway with the intention to fix the problem before anything went wrong.

Instead of being upfront about the crisis, it tried to downplay the accidents. The company seemingly ignored concerns about safety, even after the incidents. According to whistle-blowers, the company’s CEO said that the planes were safe.

His idea of problem-solving was to provide training for pilots on how to override the system. The company still insists that the plane is fundamentally safe.

What Boeing should have done

As a result of their mishandling of this situation, Boeing experienced a PR nightmare. What could have been done differently? Well, as it turns out, a lot of things.

It should have taken responsibility immediately

When that first plane crashed, Boeing should have admitted its error. It could have then grounded all planes and prevented the second accident. Granted, this would have led the company to civil lawsuits and massive financial losses.

At least the CEO would have been able to say, “We are sorry, there was a bug in the system that we did not know about.” The company’s reputation would have taken a knock, but accidents happen. The public understands that.

Had Boeing come forward immediately, it would have sent the message, “We care about safety.” It could then have started rebuilding trust in the brand through a careful media campaign.

It might, for example, have clients spooked into cancelling their bookings. These campaigns could have played up the excellent safety record that the company had. Boeing could have offered discounts on various flights. Also, it could have created a campaign to explain what went wrong, and then detailed the steps it intended to take. The company could have opened up its design records for closer scrutiny.

It should have offered pilots training to help them overcome the problem or fix it, before putting the planes back in the air. The company did none of those things. Instead, it came forward with the message, “Our planes are safe.”

Even though there was a dangerous fault, Boeing did nothing about it. The first accident could have been ascribed to a tragic error. The PR team had a real chance to turn this accident into a PR victory.

The company could have shown the public that it cared more about safety than the bottom line. Of course, it did not do that. Perhaps it refused to admit the error because it was in the wrong. Maybe the people involved knew they should not have let those planes fly in the first place.

The company wanted to cover up the error, so it suffered the consequences. That second crash delivered a killing blow to its reputation. The 737 model in question remains grounded, and Boeing established a $100 million fund for the victims’ families.

The company has since released the newest version of the plane. But, considering the mess it’s in, will anyone be brave enough to use its services? Such errors will not kill Boeing. After all, which major competitors could step in to fill the gap?

If we were not talking about a company with such a strong market position, it could have been its demise.

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Maja Talevska
Maja Talevska is a content curator and contributor for several different publications, including Review42.com. As one of her biggest passions, writing is more than just a profession, which is why she always delivers top-notch content.

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