Addison Schonland of the commercial aerospace consulting firm AirInsight describes how the 737 MAX hullabaloos have exposed shortfalls in Boeing’s crisis communications and public relations:
The MAX crisis demonstrated to everyone in aerospace media how poorly Boeing was prepared for the recent crashes. More importantly, Boeing was unprepared for the onslaught of information that started to flow freely after the crashes. … In the absence of communications from Boeing, subject matter experts, whether highly qualified or not, become media stars overnight. An information vacuum cannot exist in today’s 24-hour news cycle and the Internet. The demand for information is great, and somebody will fill the vacuum.
The fact that Boeing had to clam up about the crashes for legal reasons is well understood. But the lack of transparency about design decisions, how the company made trade-off choices when creating the MAX, and issues related to the certification process left Boeing exposed.
Rival Airbus has traditionally reached out and established relationships with the aerospace media:
Airbus spends a lot of money once per year inviting the media to an event it calls “Innovation Days”. A week ago, at the most recent event, there were 130 media members from almost every country. Airbus briefed the media on both their products and plans …. Airbus provided access to the key leaders so attendees could speak with them and ask questions, with unrestricted Q&As with C-Suite executives who stayed for a substantial period of time.
Airbus clearly has an ROI. From the perspective of an attendee, and having attended several, is that the media comes away from the event informed. But more importantly, attendees feel they understand what Airbus is doing.
Airbus, through these events, communicates with the trade and news media. This communication provides attendees with, de minimis, a sympathetic view. If Airbus had suffered the two crashes, we believe the press would not have attacked the company the same way it has Boeing.
Schonland highlights how such a web of relationships becomes indispensable during a crisis, whether the crisis is self-inflicted or caused by external events:
By not being more open Boeing has helped create a gap between itself and much of the media. … Boeing has lost any control of the [737 MAX disaster] story. Whatever Boeing does provide now is seen as biased and self-serving—there is little goodwill from the media. When [Boeing CEO] Dennis Muilenburg goes on television for the rare interview, he does not come across as well as he might. Why is that? Because everything he says is now filtered through a non-sympathetic, hyper-critical lens.
Boeing needs to invest in the small army of trade and press media that cover the industry—not just a handful of selectees. This small army provides crucial perspective en masse during a crisis and fills the vacuum with educated views and perspective.
Businesses that fail to develop such goodwill or simply lose their way with regard to public relations become vulnerable to condemnation and backlash. This can result in a wide-ranging loss of credibility, as has transpired with Boeing and its leadership.
Idea for Impact: Invest in formal and informal relationships with key external constituents who can help your business—and personal—interests. The Guanxi tradition in the Chinese culture has it just about right in placing a huge emphasis on building social capital through relationships. From Wikipedia,
At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon, that is, one’s standing with another. … Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another.
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