Airplanes have one definitive feature: they fly. When fliers board that multi-ton tin can, they are trusting that it will somewhat-miraculously take off in one place and safely land in another. When that promise is broken, it’s not a minor inconvenience, but a frightful and public tragedy.
With two notable crashes of its 737 Max jetliner in the past year-and-a-half, Boeing broke that promise to 346 unfortunate passengers and crew in Indonesia and Ethiopia. This tragic loss of life echoed to millions of travelers beyond those onboard, shaking the foundational trust that air travel is built on. Airlines grounded the plane, stock prices dipped, and the CEO was fired.
Most challenging, and the toughest pill to swallow, is that this incident ran deeper than just a flawed design – it was a flawed culture and process that cut corners and produced a dangerous product. In recent days we’ve learned of internal emails that express disdain for management and regulators, indicate years of coverups and oversights, and present a focus more on shareholder value than on flier safety.
This isn’t something that a flashy advertising campaign or a well-worded tweet can fix. Brand equity is hard-earned, built slowly over years. But as Ben Franklin wisely put it,
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t just one bad deed, but a system of repeated ones that ultimately broke the promise that lies at the core of Boeing’s brand. Righting this wrong will take concentrated effort and a large dose of humble responsibility.
Perhaps the best-known case of effective crisis management is that of the 1982 Tylenol murders. In the span of few days, seven people in the Chicago area mysteriously died of cyanide poisoning. The deaths were traced back to tampered bottles of Tylenol, and warnings were issued to discontinue using the product in the news and even through patrol cars using loudspeakers.
As hysteria built, Johnson & Johnson, makers of Tylenol, decided to take swift and decisive action. At great expense, the company issued a nationwide recall of all of its products, over 30 million bottles in total. Within weeks, Johnson & Johnson reintroduced Tylenol in triple-sealed tamper-proof packages, and a short time later the painkiller was back at the top of the market.
Notably, the Tylenol murderer was never caught, and Johnson & Johnson was not actually the cause of the crisis. But this incident is case-study crisis management because they took responsibility, went into action without regard to expense, and spent not a moment delaying.
Boeing, on the other hand, has been much slower in its response to the 737 Max crisis, largely just nodding to additional training so far. If they want to repair their brand, the company will need to heed the lessons of Tylenol nearly four decades ago: fully take responsibility for producing an unsafe aircraft that resulted in hundreds of needless deaths, invest heavily in a renewed focus on engineering and safety, and do both of these things without letting another news cycle slipping by.
New CEO David Calhoun officially takes charge today. He has an opportunity to turn things around, but it will not be easy.