What Communicators Can Learn from the Boeing Report

Today's House Transportation Committee's report, about the two fatal Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes, holds few surprises. Despite 17 months of investigation, five hearings, 24 interviews and 600,000 pages of documents, the 238-page study, which committee Republicans refused to sign, confirms nearly all of what media reported previously. In short, there's plenty of blame all around.

Most troubling from a safety and trust perspective, perhaps, is one of the report's conclusions that neither Boeing nor the FAA "has fully incorporated essential safety lessons, despite a global grounding of the MAX fleet since March 2019," veteran aviation reporters Andy Pasztor and Andrew Tangel write.

The report blasts Boeing, the country's largest exporter, for papering over mechanical issues developers, test pilots and engineers raised prior to the plane going into service. That's bad enough, of course. Yet Boeing also kept a lid on things after the first fatal crash, on Oct. 29, 2018.

Blame All Around

In addition, the report whacks the Federal Aviation Administration for allowing Boeing to hoodwink it and for failing to exercise rigorous oversight.

“[The two crashes] were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA," the report said.

The second crash, March 10, 2019, about six months after the first, killed everyone on board. All told, 346 people died on the two flights. Those deaths, the report concludes, were needless.

“We have been hard at work strengthening our safety culture and rebuilding trust with our customers, regulators, and the flying public,” Boeing said in response to the report. In addition, the FAA said it is implementing changes. The report, though, recommends a complete overhaul of FAA oversight. In some cases, Boeing officials, acting on behalf of the FAA, certified aspects of the Max's development, the report confirms.

People Over Profits

Though the report's conclusions are not surprising, implications for PR and business are many. First, Boeing offers evidence for those who feel corporations exist solely to generate returns. Part of the 737 Max story involves Boeing managers sweeping technical concerns under the rug in an effort to maximize profits and stay on time and budget.

The aphorism, "profits over people," will get plenty of use with those who want to summarize Boeing's culture. Of course, more than a few PR pros wince at that phrase, particularly those who believe the corporation's purpose is shifting toward becoming an entity responsible for profits and people.

We're not be naive. Corporations act ethically and take stands for many reasons. There's a long road to travel before we can say stakeholder capitalism is the order of the day. The report's verdict on Boeing's apparently callous regard for safety will make that trip a bit longer for Boeing communicators, but also for PR pros everywhere.

Crisis Communication Blunders

After the initial crash, Boeing's response was terse, tepid and non-transparent. “We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX," Boeing said. It was old-school crisis communications. The jet continued to fly. Do you need to know anything else?

Not uttered was this statement: Out of an abundance of caution, we've decided to halt flights of the 737 Max 8 until we can investigate the cause of the crash. So, it was business as usual, more or less.

There even were reports of Boeing implying such a crash would not have occurred on a U.S.-based airline with American pilots at the helm.

You never want to blame someone else for your crisis unless you are completely certain of the facts. Though there was little doubt prior to today's report, the study fingers Boeing and makes a mockery of its initial crisis-communication stance. The crashes and the company's balky response have cost Boeing revenue, reputation and trust.

A related aside: had the two crashes occurred in the U.S., instead of off the coast of Indonesia and in Ethiopia, would things have been different? Most likely.

MCAS

One communication-related item that changed after the first crash was training. Boeing marketers claimed one of the advantages of the Max 8 was how similar it was to previous Boeing aircraft. As such, extensive (read costly and time consuming) pilot training was unnecessary. Pilots could learn about modifications to the Max via computer simulation or in a handbook.

After the first crash, though, some pilots and their unions complained publicly and privately that Max training was inadequate. They simply weren't briefed well on a new anti-stall device, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Critics claimed it was the culprit in the first crash. A debate between pilots defending MCAS and attacking it occurred. Clearly, Boeing had defenders.

Quietly, after the first crash, Boeing sent teams all over the world to brief airline pilots about MCAS. We asked at the time, why is Boeing sending out trainers if there's nothing wrong with the plane and the existing training regime is satisfactory? Boeing insisted the “function performed by MCAS is referenced” in the flight manual, and “existing procedures” to deal with it are documented.

Little Doubt

The second crash appeared to mirror the first disaster. That second disaster seemed to erase doubt that the aircraft was flawed. Still, Boeing was slow to react. It had company. The FAA, arguably the world leader in aviation safety, was the last global body to call for Max's grounding.

Safe, too was Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenberg, who eventually stepped down, albeit with blood on his hands. His replacement is a board member connected to the Max's development. At least from an optics standpoint, you have to wonder if that was a wise choice.

For evidence, see Wells Fargo, which stayed inside the organization when selecting personnel to run things after its bogus credit card crisis was exposed. Its crisis continues, though an outsider, Charlie Scharf, now leads the bank.

Props: Communicators, inside and outside of government, should take a minute and look at the committee's site for the report. It's excellent, easy to navigate and prompt. A small silver lining.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider