Boeing CEO embarks on "communications task" following Alaska Airlines incident
Just five years after two crashes that killed 346 people, Boeing is back in the news due to manufacturing and safety concerns.
Why it matters: Unlike the 737 Max crisis of 2018-19, Boeing's leadership is prioritizing communication as it attempts to restore trust, rebuild its reputation and win back business after a door of an Alaska Airlines plane flew off during ascent on Jan. 5.
- Yes, but: The bar for Boeing is low based on how the previous Max crisis was handled.
Flashback: In October 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed, killing all 189 passengers, and five months later an Ethiopian Airlines flight experienced a nearly identical crash, resulting in the death of 157 people.
- Roughly one month after the second crash, then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued the first public apology, acknowledging that a software issue was to blame.
- Up until that point, Muilenburg was viewed as muddling the message and shifting blame to the pilots and airlines, which did little to instill public confidence.
- Ultimately, the company mishandled much of the public response, and it cost Muilenburg and several other executives their jobs.
Flash forward: Now, with new leadership and a new crisis, Boeing has taken a different approach.
- Unlike in 2018-19, there were no fatalities because of the Alaska Airlines door incident and the problem was quickly identified as loose plug bolts and "installation issues" on the 737 MAX 9 aircraft.
- Also unlike the previous incidents, this happened in the United States on a U.S. airline and was captured in real time by cellphone footage, which heightened media attention and online chatter.
Zoom in: Following the Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing has taken an inside-out approach to communications, often publishing internal speeches and memos.
- In his remarks to employees — which were clipped and shared with the public — Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun applauded the Alaska crew, took responsibility for the issue and promised transparency and collaboration with regulators throughout the investigation process.
- Calhoun hit these same talking points in an interview with CNBC but has not done a sit-down interview since — though he did speak to a gaggle of Capitol Hill reporters Wednesday.
- "We have a communications task with all of our customers," Calhoun said. "... We're going to approach this, No. 1, acknowledging our mistake. We're going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way."
What they're saying: "Boeing seems to have learned its lesson, at least the lesson in how to communicate to the public about this. ... Calhoun said we're going to acknowledge our mistake — and that was something that was lacking after the previous incidents," Peter Robison, author of "Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing," told NPR.
- Calhoun's "messaging has shown humility, transparency and full cooperation with regulators, and his approach could be a master class in what a company should do," says Deirdre Latour, founder of Rebellis Communications and former chief communications officer at GE.
Yes, but: While Boeing is regularly updating its website, Calhoun has since gone quiet, which is frustrating some of its airline customers (more on that below).
- "From a reputation perspective, Boeing is in a deep hole and unfortunately, these concerns over quality issues will not be erased overnight," a former Boeing communications executive told Axios.
- "They're going to have to come up with a very long-term strategy to try to repair the reputation — and strong communications alone will not fix it."
What to watch: More stakeholder engagement is coming.
- Boeing leadership is meeting with U.S. senators to discuss the 737 MAX 9 grounding, plus the company is expected to report its quarterly earnings next week.