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An erosion of trust: Boeing struggles against tide of criticism

A torrid few months…

On October 29th, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java sea just 12 minutes after take-off. The disaster claimed the lives of all 189 people on board and was the first major incident involving Boeing’s new fleet of 737 Max aircraft.

Given the rarity of air crashes, few would have predicted Boeing would again be embroiled in the fall-out of another plane crash just five months later, when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 (involving the same Max jet model) suffered a devastatingly similar fate.Boeing struggles against a tide of criticism

Investigations into both crashes are continuing, but preliminary flight data suggests a number of similarities between the two accidents, with a new automated anti-stall system facing particularly fierce scrutiny. International authorities were quick to respond to the second crash, given the apparent semblance between the accidents, with several key regulators taking the decision to ground the aircraft within 48 hours.

A rapid response was inevitable. Passenger trust in technology underpins the entire aviation industry, and for many of us flying has become a ritual that has permeated both our personal and professional lives.

It is therefore hardly surprising to see the global aviation community respond so decisively. Air travel may be common, but faith in complex flying systems is understandably fickle. In today’s media-saturated world, images from crash sites inevitably find their way onto television and social media, and scattered debris from a fallen jet is enough to unnerve even the most experienced flyer.   

When disaster strikes, the immediate requirement of any corporation involved is to show empathy. This was a human tragedy – and it required a human response. 

Given the delicate position Boeing found itself in following the second crash, many observers were surprised by the communications strategy pursued by the company.

An established corporate behemoth, Boeing would have been expected to deal with the crisis with humanity and professionalism. In many ways, the aerospace corporation has grown into a symbol of American excellence, delivering products so tremendously reliable they have long been perceived as the international benchmark for quality.

It was therefore incredible that, from the moment news of the crash reached media outlets, external communications from the company repeatedly fell short of the mark.

An uncomfortably long silence allowed public anger to fester, whilst widespread criticism from industry experts and the media started to erode Boeing’s most valuable reputational commodity: trust.

The damage that’s been done is obvious.

Boeing saw its share value drop by roughly $40 billion following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, whilst several airliners have already indicated that they are re-evaluating their 737 Max orders.

Additionally, and despite their immense lobbying power, Boeing is also facing ferocious scrutiny in Washington. Congressional committees have started looking into the Federal Aviation Administration’s (F.A.A) certification of the 737 Max, and experts have accused the Administration of being ‘too close’ with the aerospace company. An angry public response has also been quick to insinuate that the cosy relationship fostered between the two organisations has led to hundreds losing their lives.

So, what did Boeing get wrong?

The first problem with Boeing’s response was their tone. Irrespective of technical malfunctions, software issues, aircraft orders and share prices, plane crashes are first and foremost human tragedies. Planes can be modified, stock prices can recover, and software may be updated. Lives, on the other hand, cannot be replaced.

Given the narrative that was forming, their immediate response should have been informed by genuine empathy and regret.Ethiopian Airlines, Beoing struggles with criticism after crash

Instead, save for a few clunky Tweets and bland statements, Boeing chose to pursue a strategy more heavily focused on preserving the 737 Max’s technical reputation as an airworthy vessel. A scroll through that week’s headlines indicates how ineffective that strategy was. Boeing’s share prices that week appear to have agreed.

Another issue was that Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing CEO, was too quiet for too long. For corporations in the throes of crisis, the temptation is often to lie low and wait for the storm to clear. This rarely works in the long-run. As the media frenzy grew, Mr. Muilenburg was nowhere to be seen. It is even more concerning that, amidst the growing outrage, he found time to call President Trump and request that the 737 Max fleet remain airborne – reportedly reiterating the company’s confidence in the aircraft. This was a poor misjudgement of the public’s mood.

In a desperate attempt to ease their financial stakeholder’s fears, Boeing ignored its most important one – the passengers that use its airplanes.

The public didn’t expect the CEO to come out and explain aircraft safety software to 7 billion people. Nor did they expect a Boeing spokesperson to criticise one of their flagship aircraft. What they did expect, at the very least, was a genuine expression of sympathy.

Where does Boeing go from here?

Boeing will survive this setback – it’s too important to the international aviation industry not to. Safety adjustments will probably be made to the existing fleet of 737 Max aircraft. The share price will recover, and passengers will go back to flying on their Max models.  

But Boeing faces an enormous battle to re-build its reputation. Trust is not the most enduring of qualities, and Boeing has done little to put its stakeholders at ease.  Brand trust helps companies win customers and influence governments. Now, regulators will be less willing to give the benefit of the doubt. These are tangible repercussions, and Boeing faces a long road ahead to get back to where it was.

Of course, not every organisation is Boeing. Not every company operates in such a high stakes industry – where people’s lives depend on the very products they design – and most companies are not listed on a stock exchange…but that’s not the question that needs to be asked.

Instead, businesses need to ask themselves ‘‘what is the level of risk we are prepared to accept?’’, and ‘‘how much damage can we take before reaching our own reputational ‘event horizon’?’’. For some, no matter how hard they may try, there is no escaping the shadow cast by past mistakes.