How to Avoid a Boeing-type Crisis

Brands must establish trust in order to survive. How do you regain trust in your brand when it has been lost? There is no doubt a plethora of people at Boeing asking that question today. 

By now, billions of people around the world are aware of the crisis that Boeing, a leader in aerospace engineering for over 100 years, is facing. Literally millions of people trust their lives to Boeing every single day when they board commercial aircraft. Even the President of the United States flies on a Boeing jet. This trust is absolutely foundational to the world economy, and the questions swirling around the recent airline crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302 continue to mount. 

Arguably, trust is a foundation of most brand-customer relationships, with some being more crucial than others. For instance, the trust placed in a brand whose products are designed to protect and/or nourish children is more important than the trust placed in an apparel brand or a television maker. Brands play an important role in the lives of their customers and an ‘agreement’ takes place when someone makes a purchase. 

In the case of Boeing, it’s reasonable to conclude the ‘agreement’ between the company and its airline customers involves delivering a safe, reliable, and long-lasting aircraft that’s economical to operate. In Boeing’s case, as with many other manufacturers, their customers’ customers must be seen as the ultimate target to keep in focus. For instance, United Airlines served 158 million customers in 2018, and the vast majority of those were on Boeing aircraft. Those 158 million people ‘agreed’ with United’s choice of Boeing and trusted their lives with both companies. 

Wreckage of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

When agreements are broken or called into question, trust erodes. While it’s early in the investigations of the Lion Air and Ethiopia Airlines crashes, the evidence continues to mount that there were crucial potential safety concerns with the Boeing 737-MAX aircraft that were not fully addressed and documented. You can read about these here, here, and here. An obvious question to ask is why? Why would a well-respected and trusted aircraft manufacturer compromise on safety when it is so obviously foundational to its brand reputation? 

While we cannot answer that question, for now let’s focus on ensuring trust in your organization or brand so you can avoid being front-page news due to a crisis. To do this, we must understand the components of the ‘agreement’ between your brand and your customers (and maybe even your customers’ customers).

Ask yourself this: how confident am I that I know the key concerns, tensions, stressors, wishes, needs, core values, etc. of my customers (and/or my customers’ customers)? The follow up to that question is: do I really know what trade-offs or compromises my customers are willing to make when they purchase from me? The more uncertain you are, the more work you need to do to find out. 

The larger your brand and the more people you serve, the higher the stakes are that you understand and honor these ‘agreements.’ We might recall other PR crises, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 or the VW Dieselgate scandal of 2015/2016. In each of these cases, shortcuts were taken that violated the agreements in place with customers. In fact, in both of these examples, the violated agreements affected society as a whole (via oiled beaches, contaminated water, polluted air, etc.). In both cases, tens of billions of dollars were paid out in the aftermath. We don’t yet know how the current crisis will play out for Boeing, but with airlines canceling orders, potential lawsuits from victims’ families and the airlines themselves, it’s easy to imagine the impact being in the tens of billions of dollars. 

Back to the original question: how do you avoid a Boeing-type crisis?

First, you have to understand the components of the agreement that people make with your brand. Don’t make assumptions. If you don’t know, do what you have to do to find out. Dig deep and make sure you understand the underlying values that are motivating your customers. 

Second, you need to discover these same components of the agreement with your stakeholders. This includes employees, vendors, communities where you operate a plant or factory, shareholders, etc. If there are gaps in your understanding, endeavor to close them. This is particularly important if you have large numbers of front-line employees that interact directly with your customers (retail, food service, hospitality, travel, etc.).

Third, once you understand the agreements in place between you and your customers (and your customers’ customers where appropriate) along with the agreements in place with your stakeholders, you need to determine if there is dissonance. Does an agreement you have in place with your employees conflict with one you have with your customers? What about the agreements you have in place with shareholders or other stakeholders? Are they congruous with agreements you have with the people buying your products and services? 

Dissonance is a good sign that you’re at risk for a crisis. Where there is dissonance, look for opportunities for alignment. It won’t be easy, so prepare yourself for some difficult conversations. This is where the work you put into understanding the agreements comes into play. If you’ve done your homework, you have a solid understanding of these, and you can show your organization’s leadership, Board of Directors, etc. why they are so important. Hint: real stories from real people will amplify the data you may be tempted to rely upon. 

Finally, once you’ve cleaned up the dissonance and aligned your brand’s values with your stakeholders’ values and your customers’ values, you have to live these values out in the market. Values are not simply feel-good copy for a webpage or corporate brochure. They must guide every decision the organization makes. Avoid shortcuts. While they may provide short-term boosts, shortcuts introduce risk to the brand’s reputation and call into question all the agreements you’ve made previously. 

You’re unlikely to achieve perfection, but if your organization does its best to honor its agreements, the odds increase that mistakes will be avoided, and when a mistake or accident does occur, it will be more easily forgiven and your brand will be given the benefit of the doubt. This could make the difference between a bump in the road and a full-scale months-long PR crisis with untold agony and suffering.