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How to Handle a PR Crisis: What Boeing Should Have Done

image for SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock
SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock
  • After a crisis occurs, get ahead of the narrative by addressing it right away.
  • Be sure to convey empathy for any problems caused. Be sympathetic to anyone emotionally or physically hurt, but consult your legal team before admitting guilt.
  • Don't forget to use social media as a signal boost for your business's post-crisis message.

Financial, existential and reputational crises can happen to any business. Planning for the worst-case scenario can save a lot of headaches, regardless of how big or small your company may be.

Even though the best course of action is to avoid crisis and controversy altogether, sometimes it's completely unavoidable. How a business handles the fallout and responds to a disaster can be the difference between a blip on the radar or a full-blown PR nightmare. When things go sideways, it's imperative that you have a crisis management plan in place so your reputation and livelihood aren't irrevocably damaged.

While there are plenty of examples of major companies going through tough times, the ongoing crisis at Boeing and its 737 Max aircraft is the most high-profile and damaging situation making headlines today. Below are three crisis management tips that small businesses can learn from Boeing's mistakes.

Few crises have hit a business as hard in recent years as the one that's left Boeing reeling over the last few weeks. In the months since two of Boeing's 737 Max aircraft crashed, killing more than 300 people, the situation for the aircraft manufacturer has gone from bad to worse. Nearly the entire fleet has been grounded due to a faulty stabilization system, which is suspected to have caused the crashes. Airlines have requested compensation for the stoppage, and orders for the aircraft have ground to a halt.

With massive losses expected in the company's foreseeable future, experts are pointing to at least one particularly damaging aspect of the crisis that Boeing spectacularly failed to navigate: its public response.

While Boeing's woes are uniquely its own, it's still important to remember that any business can find itself at the center of a major crisis. When problems arise and your business must respond, here are some pointers to help you navigate difficult times without damaging your company's reputation.

When a business is facing a potentially damaging situation, the first thing it needs to do is address the situation as quickly and clearly as possible. It may be uncomfortable, but according to James Cassel, founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., it's better to just get out in front of it.

"When you have a problem, you need to acknowledge it right away and take active measures to deal with it," he said. "Too many companies fail to understand that stalling or obfuscating just increases the risk for your business."

Being the first out of the gate with a response is just half the solution. United Capital Source CEO and founder Jared Weitz urged companies to be more transparent to "get ahead of the story."

"Rather than obfuscate and allow external perspectives to shape the narrative, step into the light and be transparent from the start," Weitz said.

In the immediate aftermath of the crashes and the 737 Max's grounding, Boeing was harshly criticized for how it handled the crisis. Slow response times and an apology that some considered insincere compounded the PR nightmare.

By the time Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg released an apology letter and accompanying video on April 4, nearly a month had passed since the second crash. While it wasn't the company's first attempt at addressing the situation, it was considered by critics as a case of "too little, too late."

Cassel said the fact that it took Muilenburg so long to publicly apologize was a bad look, since "it takes years to build up a brand, but only a few minutes to destroy it."

Regardless of who's impacted by a company crisis, it's important that any apology is handled carefully. Company officials may want to avoid admitting guilt, but failing to address the issue at all can make it seem like those at the top don't care.

In the case of Boeing's current woes, it took the company nearly a week before it released a statement expressing its concern for passengers' safety. Coupled with the news that Boeing lobbied President Donald Trump to not ground the aircraft, David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group, said public perception around the manufacturer soured.

"Boeing's handling of the crisis was a classic study of what not to do," he said. "The key to successfully handling a crisis is being proactive and taking responsibility. Boeing failed in this and allowed others to set the narrative ... [which] conveyed the impression that Boeing was more concerned about profits than people's safety."

While most experts agree that addressing the event head-on and being empathetic to the victims is the best course of action, that may not always be the best legal move. Tina Willis, a Florida-based injury and accident attorney, said careful planning between a company's public relations and legal teams can go a long way in addressing the public's concerns while mitigating potential litigation.

"Any media presentation should be reviewed by the business's lawyer before release," she said. "Otherwise, if a business admits fault, or even tries to explain what happened, you can bet those statements will become valuable evidence in a future accident or death lawsuit." 

In the case of Boeing's 737 Max, where the company recently admitted it knew of the faulty sensors prior to the crashes, Willis said potential lawsuits could come with massive penalties as families of the victims seek restitution. That would explain why companies often struggle with empathy versus liability.

"The bottom line is, from a liability standpoint, Boeing faced an extremely difficult dilemma," said Willis. "However, when combining PR goals with avoiding liability goals, the best approach would have been to have the PR people develop a game plan with the company's lawyers. If having the statement reviewed by lawyers is not possible, the best legal approach for any company would be to stay silent and speak only to their lawyers, then have their lawyers speak to the press."

These days, nothing delivers your message to the public as fast as social media. As such, businesses in crisis mode should include both a social and traditional media response in their disaster recovery plans. Since social media usually sets the narrative and has quickly become a major player in the information space, Johnson said, ignoring it would be a major detriment.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, approximately 1 in 5 adults said they get their news from social media. Conversely, the percentage of respondents who said they got their news from television went from 57% to 49%, while those who cited print journalism as their main source of news dropped from 20% to 16% from 2016 to 2018.

While the hardest-hitting headlines surrounding Boeing's 737 Max were found in traditional media, the story took on a life of its own on social media. While it may be tempting to ignore the likes of Twitter and Facebook when managing your own crisis, it's important to recognize how important those platforms are in the news world.

"With the crash of the 737 Max in Ethiopia, the company was facing a human tragedy, yet did not express empathy and sympathy in addressing the issue," said Johnson. "[Boeing] ignored social media critics who largely set the narrative that the traditional media [picked up on]."

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. Currently, he is responsible for reviewing tax software and online fax services. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.