Two Problems: One Calls for a Fix, One Called for a Plan

Unfortunately for airplane manufacturer Boeing, it has a problem right now. Correction:  Unfortunately for airplane manufacturer Boeing, it actually has two problems right now. One of those problems is one that nearly everyone around the world in developed countries, as well as in somewhat undeveloped countries is probably well aware of – the issue with Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software on its new 737 Max airplanes. This problem has been identified as the cause for two tragic crashes involving the 737 Max jet within five months, and resulted in the March 13, 2019 grounding of the aircraft by the FAA. This of course followed the grounding of that same particular aircraft by several other countries including China, India, Turkey and South Korea, to name a few. This is a problem Boeing must fix. They know it, and they are currently working on that fix.

The other problem that Boeing now faces is one that not as many people will readily identify. Although for those of us in the field of Marketing and PR, we know it is a glaring problem. It is the damage these tragic incidents have done, and will do, to Boeing’s brand. This is a problem for which Boeing should have had an executable plan, (but appears may not to have had.) They know it…now, and they are currently working to execute one. Because as tragic as the two crashes are, any damage that has been done, or will be done to Boeing’s brand, is not solely the result of these two unfortunate incidents alone. A major factor in furthering or limiting any damage to the brand will not only come from what Boeing does as company to address and quickly fix the MCAS issue, but will also come from how well and how soon they communicate those fixes to the flying public and its airline customers. Important also will be the scope of the message as well as the manner and tone in which that message is delivered. In short, they will have to work extremely hard to earn back the trust and belief that its airplanes are safe to fly, and fly on.

This is entirely possible however. One of the most famous cases of company overcoming what might have been long-term or even a permanently damaged brand as a result of a PR crisis, is the case of the tragic Tylenol murders that took place in the Chicagoland area in 1982. In that tragedy, 7 people who took Tylenol Extra Strength died shortly after ingesting the medication, due to the product having been tampered with and laced with Cyanide. The nationwide scare was on an unprecedented level, and as can be imagined, the consumer’s trust in the safety of the product was nil. However, Johnson & Johnson the company that produced Tylenol received positive coverage for its handling of the crisis, and as was reported by the Washington post at that time, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster”. The Washington Post article went on to say that “this is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company’s response did more damage than the original incident”, and ultimately applauded the company for being transparent with the public. Although Johnson & Johnson’s market share collapsed from 35% to 8% during the scare, in less than a year’s time it rebounded, an increase that was credited to the company’s prompt and aggressive reaction. In November of 1982, the company reintroduced capsules, but did so in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions. And within just a few short years, Tylenol had the highest market share of any over-the-counter analgesic in the US, and still enjoys solid market-share to this day.

In contrast however, in the days immediately following the 2nd crash involving its 737 Max jet, and in light of the growing concern around the similarities between the two crashes and increasing evidence pointing towards a glitch in the MCAS software, Boeing unfortunately was slow to respond. And when it did, it took the tact of defending itself, going so far as Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg reportedly calling President Donald Trump personally in an attempt to delay the FAA’s grounding of the jet. These missteps by Boeing, as well as many others that have been reported in the weeks following the 2nd crash have not served Boeing or its brand well. It has also underscored what appears to have been Boeing’s lack of a plan that could be, and should have been, executed immediately in the event of such tragic occurrences. To be sure, this is not an indictment on Boeing or an attempt to “pile on” during a difficult and trying time, but rather an illustration of the impact a crisis, and how that crisis is handled, can have on a company’s hard-earned brand reputation.

The final score of what ultimate impact all of this will have on Boeing and its brand going forward, remains yet to be seen. However, what companies can learn from this right now, is the importance of having and executing flawlessly, a crisis management strategy and plan, to protect the integrity of their company’s brand.