Boeing’s abundance of defensiveness

Insight

When Boeing withdrew its 737 Max aircraft from service in March, two of the planes had crashed in separate incidents in Ethiopia and Indonesia over the previous five months.

At the time the causes of the twin disasters, which cost 346 lives, seemed an open question. But the wording of a first Boeing media statement suggested the company was rushing to over-egg its innocence.

Boeing said it had withdrawn its planes as a “proactive step out of an abundance of caution.”

The use of the word “proactive” was rich, given that several regulators had already grounded the plane.

But the claim of an “abundance” of caution was surely too much. You would expect caution to be plentiful when building an airplane. If Boeing had wanted to arouse suspicion this was a very good way of going about it.

Investigators have confirmed pilots were thrown into fatal confusion by an obscure new flight control feature that despite frantic efforts, kept nudging the plane’s nose downward.

Boeing’s original statement appears to have been subsequently removed from their website and replaced with something more factual and low-key. Which is how they should have been talking in the first place.

Given the scale of the human tragedy, how Boeing communicated is only part of the picture. But its conduct remains a lesson in how being in too much of rush to protect your reputation can make it worse. What can be learned?  

First, stick to the facts. Don’t let a wish to be found blameless confuse you into thinking you actually are.

Second, think and talk like a human being. Family members of those who were killed might have recoiled at the fulsome dismissal of responsibility and corporate self-regard.

In a later letter, after the plane’s defects had been identified, Boeing’s CEO said that he and his team had thought of the people who’d died ever since the moment they learned of the accidents. (They had been “humbled by their resilience and inspired by their courage.”)

But that is not how Boeing’s first media release came across. The company extended its sympathy, but the dominant theme was one of stressing “full confidence” in the safety of their plane.

Four days after the second crash Boeing shares were reported to have lost $35 billion in value. Last week, they continued to fall after US regulators identified a second possible 737 Max defect.

Shareholders may be the ones exercising caution, whether abundantly or not, by withdrawing their investment in a company they are possibly not sure they can trust.