Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Barring any other major PR blunders in the next month, Boeing’s public handling of its problems surrounding the company’s 737 Max airliner will top—or at least sit near the top —of the year’s biggest PR disasters. 

The Max 737 had been Boeing’s fastest-selling aircraft in the company’s 103-year history until two major crashes killed 346 passengers and flight crews within the past year. And now the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer’s stock has been taking a beating and the future of the company’s next heralded jet, the Boeing 797, is up in the air.

A bad marriage?

No critics of Boeing’s handling of the crisis have publicly forecast the demise of the company, mainly because there are simply too many airlines that depend on it. Could that also be the reason for the laissez-faire leadership and lack of proper crisis communication?

An absence of awareness is one of the symptoms of poor laissez-faire leadership. But in the end, no matter the style, accountability still remains on the CEO and his/her staff.

Role of the CEO

In a crisis, the CEO must claim moral conviction and take the high ground irrespective of how devastating the disaster. The public nearly always forgives, even in case of error. Ensuring that victims are taken care of, in addition to their immediate family, is paramount. 

Because of the magnitude of both crashes, the public expects to hear from the CEO. People also expect to hear a commitment to doing everything possible to prevent this from occurring again. The tone of the response and the voice that the CEO uses must also display empathy and confidence.

After the first crash, Harvard Business Review reported that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg insisted that the Max 737 was safe. The problem was discovered to be a new system that was supposed to prevent planes from stalling.

What was subsequently learned is that most pilots were unaware of—and remained untrained on—the new system. Even regulators weren’t told how it worked. After the crashes, what was revealed was that a chief technical Max pilot hadn’t only complained about the new system two years prior to the first crash, but had queried the FAA about the company removing instruction of the system from pilot manuals.

Displaying empathy in addressing public concerns and exercising a lot more transparency would’ve gone a long way in managing what became a lack of confidence. And while Boeing doesn’t deal directly with the flying public, those airlines that flew the Max 737 do. How they’ll address the same future concerns when that aircraft is cleared to fly is yet to be seen, but the grounding has already cut future orders for the Max 737 by more than half. 

Boeing has been tone deaf to the concerns of consumers. The Max 737 is grounded until at least January of 2020.

In response to the public outrage, Boeing’s board removed Muilenberg as board Chair and relieved the person heading up the Max program. Muilenberg, however, remains President and CEO. On the company’s investor page, he boasts about a backlog of orders worth $470 billion and unnamed competitive advantages. There’s no mention of any kind of commitment to safety.

The combination of what might have been negative laissez-faire leadership and the absence of a good crisis communications plan appears to have created the perfect climate for a PR disaster. 

As Steve Jobs was once quoted, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

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Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading NY PR firm.