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… this reporter thought Boeing’s apparent disengagement in the public discourse inconsistent with the company’s excellent reputation and engineering prowess. Boeing aircraft fly millions of miles every day carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers to and from every air-carrier airport in the world. Boeing aircraft carry the load day in and day out with little more than minor technical problems. And they have done so for well over four years absent injury or fatalities.
Fire in flight is a disaster no one wants to experience. In the last few weeks Boeing suffered battery system fires on two or more of its 787 Dreamliner fleet. Some, but not all battery system fires occurred in Japan where most of the early 787 fleet were introduced into service last year by All Nippon Airlines. When similar incidents were reported, including at least two at Boston, the FAA initiated a review of the stored energy systems on Boeing’s newest passenger aircraft.
Press reports in Japan revealed that as many as 10 battery systems were replaced on one or more 787 aircraft operated by ANA. Since then, the FAA, and its Japanese counterpart, grounded Boeing’s 787 fleet pending further investigation. A great deal has been written about Boeing’s new high-tech airliner — nearly all of it about the battery system design and whether lithium-ion batteries are safe for airline operations.
But this reporter thought Boeing’s apparent disengagement, absence in electronic media coverage, and near silence in public discourse, inconsistent with the company’s excellent reputation and engineering prowess. Boeing aircraft fly millions of miles every day carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers to and from every air-carrier airport in the world. Boeing aircraft operate around the clock, day in and day out, with little more than minor technical problems. Boeing airline equipment has a reputation for quality and excellence and safety equal to or better than its competitors.
So what troubles me is not what appears to be more than two dozen battery related incidents, but Boeing management’s apparent indifference to what is said about them in newspaper, television and online news publications. I sense that the 787 Dreamliner problems may be, or might soon become, a major corporate inflexion point for Boeing — by way of diminished public confidence in Boeing due entirely to failing to recognize its responsibility to communicate. The most recent inflexion point failure to communicate was Penn State University’s early handling of the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation story.
What isn’t said matters in today’s endless news cycle. Boeing’s silence is as much a part of the story as the incidents, groundings and engineering questions.
The similarity between Boeing and Penn State is not in the events, but in how the two institutions chose to handle them — as if not worthy of public comment, or too hot to risk telling the truth.
There are examples of corporate management who overruled the valid concerns of their lawyers because they understood the long-range importance of customer confidence and the value of an exemplary corporate reputation.
When McNeil Laboratories, makers of Tylenol, experienced product tampering in 1982 they saw the problem as far more than one of damage to the Tylenol brand, or potential short term liability. McNeil executives understood the confidence compact with consumers that awarded Tylenol dominant market-share warranted direct engagement, accurate information and press availability that included senior management.
McNeil wrote the book on how to save a brand, and a company, by leading the story, not hiding from it. Tylenol is still on store shelves today. Like McNeil Laboratories, Boeing is no more responsible for the battery problem, most likely, than McNeil Labs was responsible for store shelf tampering. But each company’s management teams chose very different approaches. Maybe Boeing has something to hide from the public, but that seems more than a little far-fetched for a company so well managed.
Based on the company’s technical prowess it’s safe to assume that Boeing will fix the battery problem — that’s a certainty. But media attention to that problem has damaged Boeing’s reputation as surely as McNeil Lab’s decision to recall Tylenol saved the brand even as it increased public confidence in McNeil Laboratories.
After looking online for evidence of a major public relations response from Boeing I cannot find anything beyond public relations happy talk from the company, or its spokesmen, or its advertising agency, or its public relations advisers on what Boeing plans to do to protect its airline customers. Absent constructive comment, millions of air travelers wonder why? Or, find talk about in-flight fire damned scary.
Silence, in the face of massive media bombardment makes about as much sense as taking a sandwich to a gun fight.
The 787 Dreamliner story, Boeing’s engineering prowess, and management’s failure to speak clearly and directly to the people they depend on for survival, leaves the public discourse in the hands of others. Day by day information emerges, drip by drip, while Boeing says little of substance.
What would you advise Boeing to do? Or, weeks after the 787 fleet was unceremoniously grounded by the FAA, is it already too late to save the Dreamliner?
Or restore Boeing’s hard earned and valuable reputation?