It was a shock felt around the world. What could have caused the two crashes of Boeing’s newest, most technologically sophisticated airplanes that claimed the lives of 346 people?
According to Boeing, it was not the product which the company described as a safe airplane, but how customers, the airlines and pilots, probably were using or misusing the technology in the 737 Max.
This may go down in crisis management history as the Boeing blame shift.
Boeing made a number of statements that made a bad story worse as it implemented a crisis-management strategy that seemed to emphasize legal positioning and blame-shifting rather than the lives of the victims, not to mention the concerns of future passengers.
An exception was a statement by Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes:
“I’d like to reiterate our deepest sympathies are with the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the accident. Understanding the circumstances that contributed to this accident is critical to ensuring safe flight.”
One of Boeing’s initial responses to the crash of Lion Air, however, seemed to point the finger at the pilots and deny even the possibility there was anything wrong with the airplane.
The Boeing brand has taken a beating from a withering backlash from regulators, politicians and investors, as well as airline executives and consumers.
There are accusations that Boeing rushed the certification process of the Max, charging extra for certain safety options and trying to delay the FAA grounding of the aircraft with a personal call by CEO Dennis Muilenburg to President Trump.
Boeing’s public-relations operation has been bureaucratic and slow as the company seemed overwhelmed by a social-media-driven news cycle measured not in hours but in minutes.
Boeing “has been a step behind the news cycle on the crisis from the beginning,” said Lawrence Parnell, who runs the Strategic Public Relations graduate program at George Washington University.
Boeing is hardly the first company to fall behind the curve in a crisis as most firms’ response to trouble is slow and often defensive
But experts say that even taking into account the complexities of modern commercial aviation, Boeing has struggled to move beyond the defensive and evasive stage.
One possible factor is a corporate culture dominated by lawyers, engineers and deal makers.
Also, the fact that Boeing has always been a business to business company, so it never had to develop a large in-house expertise in responding to fast-moving consumer sentiment.
Boeing’s business model and the consumer marketplace have been shattered by social media and digital tools that not only spread news at the speed of light but also allow consumers to respond almost immediately.
In such a fast-paced, consumer-driven business environment, Boeing’s hyper-cautious, attorney-vetted response has struggled.
The long-term consequences of these disasters will depend on the effectiveness of Boeing’s software fix — how well it works, and how quickly and smoothly it can be deployed.
But it might also depend on the lessons Boeing itself has learned from these disasters and the media aftermath.