Crisis Communication Lessons From Boeing’s 737 MAX Tragedies

January 2021
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When two of Boeing’s new 737 MAX passenger jets crashed within five months of each other in late 2018 and early 2019, killing a total of 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia, the company faced the worst crisis in its 100-year history. According to reports, an automated flight-control system had sent the airplanes into nosedives. The entire MAX fleet was grounded for 20 months.

After Boeing made changes in design, software and crew training, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the 737 MAX to resume flights in December. 

Ahead of that, Gordon Johndroe, vice president of global media relations and public affairs for the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer, spoke to members of PRSA’s Corporate Communications Professional Interest Section in a Nov. 5 webinar. Here, he shares in his own words what the 737 MAX experience has taught him about crisis management:

On crisis communications plans:

We have plans that allow us to act in a 24/48/72-hour situation. With the MAX, the playbook ran out after a few days, and we were in unprecedented territory. We need to plan for beyond 72 hours. You need a cadre of people within your organization who have media relations as a backup skillset … so the core team can catch their breath. 

On rebuilding Boeing’s reputation:

I don’t want to talk too much about it until the MAX is safely flying again. And that doesn’t mean just one flight. We have months ahead of us of returning the fleet we have stored, about 450 aircraft, to their customers. And we’re going to do about half of that in 2021, and probably the remainder in 2022. The airlines themselves have to return their fleets to service.

Our main focus now is the safe return to service of the whole fleet. And frankly, that will speak more than any reputational campaign we can undertake. If people see that the plane is safely flying again, that is the substance that will drive the return, the revitalization of the Boeing name.

On the biggest lesson he learned about crisis communications:

The most important thing in crisis communications is to keep calm. Explain the situation to people internally, gather the facts, and try and get your information out as quickly and as accurately as you possibly can.

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