Plane crashes are rare. But PR failures are not. And when we’re looking at the top PR failures of 2019, the Boeing 737 disaster tops the list.

The impact a plane crash (or any other PR crisis) can have on a brand’s reputation is long lasting. So what can Boeing do to turn this around?

When it comes to a PR crisis involving the death or serious injury of customers, the rebuilding process is a bit more of an uphill battle.

The average person’s chance of dying in a plane crash is approximately one in 5 million. Yet an irrational terror of flying affects 6.5 percent of the population while another 25 percent of Americans express intense anxiety about air travel.

This is one reason why two Boeing 737 Max jet crashes, six months apart, have amounted to a publicity nightmare of epic proportions for the Boeing Company.

People perceived the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in October 2018 as a horrible tragedy. While it involved a Boeing 737 jet, that wasn’t what stuck in people’s minds…yet.

After the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash in March 2019, which also involved a Boeing 737, the pattern seemed inescapable, however. Boeing’s attempts to deflect the connection between the two crashes were met with deep mistrust, that furthered the extent of the problem.

It all added up to the biggest corporate PR fail of 2019.

What Did Boeing Do Wrong?

In PR terms, Boeing made a number of missteps. For starters, it took Boeing CEO Denis Muilenburg nearly a month to acknowledge two preliminary reports that implicated Boeing’s own software in the fatal crashes.

Even as Muilenburg apologized, he continued to express confidence in the safety of the plane and appeared to be shifting blame on to the pilots of the Ethiopian plane who did not “completely” follow the best practices contained in the manufacturer’s emergency procedures.

Muilenburg’s apology was issued on a pre-recorded video that was distributed throughout the usual social media and news networks, which many onlookers interpreted as a move that was merely made for appearances’ sake.

Under the circumstances, a press conference where reporters would have had the opportunity to ask tough questions would have been far more appropriate, and would have gone a long way in rebuilding stakeholder confidence.

Muilenburg’s apology also appeared to contain contradictory information: If the 737’s software had caused the crash, then how could the 737 be safe?

When it comes to responding to a PR crisis, there are a few key ground rules that Boeing should have followed:

  • Issue a statement in a timely manner; within 24 to 48 hours if it’s a major crisis.
  • Be authentic, and receptive to customers and stakeholders. By not allowing reporters and stakeholders an opportunity to ask questions, Boeing missed an opportunity to rebuild market confidence.
  • Be honest, and apologize, if necessary. By offering contradictory information, Boeing made customers even more distrustful. They also should have led with more empathy for the passengers who lost their lives, instead of deflecting blame.

Will Boeing Survive?

Though Boeing took a big hit to its reputation, crisis managers interviewed by “Vox” say the company will recover. One of the factors that Boeing has on its side is that the company has very little competition in the aircraft manufacturing space.

Recovery may be expensive, though. Jeffrey Carrithers, CEO of GlobalAir.com says,

“Boeing will undoubtedly be fined by congress to some extent and will probably have multiple civil lawsuits placed against the company, from people whose family members were lost in the accidents. Until the aircraft itself is released back into service, there will be continued unfavorable publicity to the company.”

That campaign of persuasion has already begun tallying up successes: In September 2019, American Airlines began flying the Boeing 737 Max again.