The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may lift its ban on Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft early next year. But getting Boeing’s reputation off the ground is another issue.
Boeing’s reputation went into a nosedive after one if its 737 Max aircraft crashed in Ethiopia early this year, killing all aboard. Another 737 Max jet crashed in Indonesia, killing all aboard, five months earlier. PR experts faulted Boeing for insisting that the airplane was safe and not immediately grounding it for investigation. The company’s response gave the impression that it doesn’t place a high priority on safety.
Boeing was less than transparent in identifying and revealing software problems that were behind the crashes. It seemingly withheld information that its own test pilots had detected some problems with the 737 Max software long before the crashes happened. The company has also been foggy in reporting on its process of developing fixes and the results of simulator tests of the new software. While it is undoubtedly reporting its progress to the FAA and the airlines, it is neglecting the public. The FAA, which shares culpability with Boeing because it did not properly oversee testing of software changes, has been essentially mum about progress in making fixes.
Aviation and communications experts generally believe Boeing will recover. The question is how long and at what price. Boeing has the advantage of being a highly respected corporation with a huge backlog of orders and little competition in building commercial airliners. It also has a residual of good will in the aviation community and among travelers for its past performance.
Boeing can recover its reputation and regain its position as the leading aircraft manufacturer with “radical transparency,” writes Samuel Engel, senior vice president and managing director of aviation at ICF, in Forbes. That entails speaking honestly, quickly, and with authenticity directly to stakeholders in global aviation safety. It benefits Boeing to publicly report all progress in making the software fixes.
In the past, companies could try to control the public narrative through corporate statements. That’s not possible in today’s fractured, fast-paced media environment. When the public hungers for information, independent storytellers will provide it, with or without the company’s viewpoint.
“Today’s news cycle is simply too fast to stay ahead of third-party insights by peddling company statements drafted by committees and vetted by counsel,” Engel says.
Employees as Brand Ambassadors
Companies sometimes recruit employees and customers as online brand ambassadors. Front-line employees may be considered more trustworthy than corporate spokespeople or top executives. They’re also already familiar with the company’s products and mission. However, employees must like their work and their company to become effective brand ambassadors.
Boeing hopes to recruit pilots as spokespeople when the 737 Max flies again, but pilots remain skeptical, according to media reports. “Our response is, yeah, that’s cute, but we aren’t going to hop into bed with you,” Mike Trevino, spokesman for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association told The New York Times. “We are still going to maintain an independent voice and call it as we see it.”
Previous communications shortfalls don’t help. Pilots fault Boeing for not informing them about the software issues that contributed to the crashes.
Understand the Public
Boeing seems to think it was only selling aircraft to airlines and addressing concerns of government regulators, but it is also selling safety to travelers, PR experts say. It mistakenly perceives itself as strictly a B2B business because it doesn’t sell products directly to consumers.
“A business-to-consumer operation like Procter & Gamble — or an airline, like Southwest Airlines or even United on its best days — is better at handling crises. But companies that perceive themselves as business-to-business actually do a worse job because they’re not used to dealing directly with consumers.” Gene Grabowski, a partner at the public relations firm kglobal, told Vox.
Convincing the public its planes are safe is challenging due of the complex workings of aviation, Eric Dezenhall, the CEO and founder of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources, told Vox. That’s why he recommends Boeing first gain approvals from governments and aviation regulators, then use those endorsements to win the public’s confidence.
“How do you explain aviation software to billions of people? You don’t. But if people see that major airlines are flying the planes and governments are allowing them to fly, combined with time passing with no adverse events, that’s your answer,” Dezenhall says.
Release Details of Testing
In announcing the approvals, the government agencies and Boeing should reveal in detail the extent of the testing to prove the plane is safe including the number of planes tested and the number of flight hours. It should also reveal the test procedures to be used before each individual plane is certified for commercial flight.
Boeing and its major airline customers have announced that its executives and their families would fly on the first commercial flights once the FAA approves the 737 Max to fly again. Even before that, Boeing could announce results of simulator tests and maybe even release video recordings of pilots in simulators during crisis situations. It could include quotes from pilots who manned the simulators for the tests.
The company could also consider providing incentives for customers to fly the 737 Max in the first few weeks or months after flights resume. The airlines, for instance, could provide steep discounts, subsidized by Boeing, on the first few flights of each 737 Max.
Bottom Line: Boeing hopes to soon win regulatory approval to return the 737 Max to the air, but the company’s PR team faces a challenging, time-consuming task: rebuilding Boeing’s reputation and convincing the public the aircraft is safe. Boeing can win over public opinion by heralding government approvals, demonstrating confidence in the aircraft, and providing incentives for the public to fly aboard the 737 Max.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.