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Boeing Faces A Major Challenge In Regaining The Public's Trust

May 21, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 4:46 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Another bad headline this week in a string of them for Boeing - a new lawsuit alleges that the company knew its 737 Max plane was unsafe. Boeing isn't commenting on the suit. The company is still working to get the 737 Max back in the air. It needs regulators to approve a software fix for the plane's automated flight-control system. That system was linked to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes that, together, killed 346 people.

But perhaps an even bigger challenge is rebuilding public trust in Boeing. I spoke with Tony Keller about that challenge. He's a media strategist with OutVox. And he said Boeing stumbled out of the gate in their response to the second crash.

TONY KELLER: I think, you know, the biggest problem with the way Boeing has reacted to this is the silence that appears to have occurred, you know, following the events. That silence was caused by the CEO trying to reach out to the president to keep the planes in the air and his business operational. But in that time, a lot of fear and distrust sort of affected the brand.

CORNISH: But the company - they did put out a statement - right? - several times, talking about waiting for the investigation and things like that.

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DENNIS MUILENBURG: We're united with our airline customers, international regulators and government authorities in our efforts to support the most recent investigation, understand the facts of what happened and help prevent future tragedies.

CORNISH: To your mind, why didn't that help?

KELLER: Well, I think the statement didn't suffice because I think they skirted a lot of blame. You know, the language in the narrative that they were pushing out was that this was a tragic accident as opposed to the fault of the aircraft itself. When you have such a tragic loss of life here, the general public is looking for more sincerity and a little bit more fault. But it gets very complicated for Boeing, right? You know, if they come out and admit fault, that escalates the lawsuit scenario for them quite a bit.

CORNISH: We have some idea of where Boeing has run into trouble. Do you have an example of a company that did damage control right?

KELLER: Yeah, certainly. I mean, this is - it's a dated example but I think relevant here. Back in the early '80s, it was discovered that Tylenol had been laced with cyanide somewhere throughout the process of the supply chain.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Within 12 hours, there were five people dead in suburban Chicago. Six would die later - all victims of extra strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide.

KELLER: They got in front of it immediately, accepted blame even when it, technically, wasn't their own blame and pulled the product off the shelf.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Within 24 hours, almost 4.7 million capsules were ordered recalled by the manufacturer, McNeil Company, a division of Johnson & Johnson, from stores in 37 states.

KELLER: I think, you know, in contrast to what's going on here, had the CEO of Boeing grounded the airlines before the governments actually did for them, you would have a lot more different reaction.

CORNISH: Finally, 346 people died in crashes. What would you like to hear? Or what should we expect to hear from Boeing now going forward?

KELLER: Well, I think, you know, they've made their public statement. And they've done a relatively OK job with staying vocal. But what they need to do as far as executives are concerned is get out of the way and let their brand ambassadors earn that trust back. And by brand ambassadors, I mean, essentially, their pilots.

CORNISH: The pilots that they, frankly, laid some blame at the feet of.

KELLER: Yes, it's an ironic sort of twist. You know, again, in these reactionary scenarios, it's always a first reaction to, you know, point a finger. And unfortunately, in this case, ironically, it's the pilots - are the ones that are going to get people back on these planes.

CORNISH: Tony Keller is a media strategist with OutVox. Thank you for speaking with us.

KELLER: Thanks for having me.

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