Going to School on Boeing CEO’s “Personal” Apology

Was Dennis Muilenburg’s CBS Interview an Effective Response to the Company’s 737 MAX Crisis?     

5/30/19 – – Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg is dealing with a Category 5 reputational storm.

It may be months before his company’s 737 MAX jets, grounded globally since March, are cleared again for takeoff. The fate of a backlog of more than 4,000 orders for the plane is in doubt. And as discussed in an earlier blog post, there’s troubling evidence that Boeing initially rushed the 737 MAX into service to meet stiff competition from Airbus – resulting in design, software and pilot training problems that likely contributed to crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

Facing turbulence from regulators, customers and investors, Muilenburg sat down last evening for an exclusive interview with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell. Given the degree of difficulty Muilenburg is dealing with (loss of hundreds of lives, billions of dollars in revenue and plenty of trust), I think he did pretty well – with one caveat.

In Chapter 12 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”) we discuss five elements of effective crisis response: Regret, Reform, Restitution, Reaffirmation and Recovery. It’s not always possible for companies to address all five elements, especially in the early stages of a crisis. But Muilenburg touches most of the bases:

REGRET – – Asked by O’Donnell if he wishes to apologize, Muilenburg says, “We feel terrible about these accidents, and we apologize for what happened, we are sorry for the loss of lives in both accidents. . . we apologize to the families that have been affected, we apologize more broadly to the traveling public where confidence has been affected.”

REFORM:  Muilenburg acknowledges problems with the 737 MAX’s software and assures viewers, “We’re taking responsibility. We know we have improvements we can make . . . We will make those improvements . . . We can’t change what has happened in these accidents but we can be absolutely resolute in what we’re going to do on safety going forward.”

RESTITUTION: With the enormous legal vulnerabilities created by this mess, Muilenburg understandably, and wisely, takes a pass on this response element.  

REAFFIRMATION: Boeing has a fantastic safety record, which Muilenburg, who’s been a Boeing employee for more than 30 years, reaffirms, promising, “We’re committed to safety for the long run.”

RECOVERY: As is the case in the early stages of most complicated reputational situations, Muilenburg is not in a position to declare an “all-clear.” While a flight-control software update is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration certification, too much is uncertain, including his own future with the company. 

All in all, the interview went well. But, here’s my caveat:

Muilenburg makes the point that he’s taking this situation “personally.” He wants us to know that dealing with this crisis “affects me directly as a leader of this company, it’s very difficult.” I’m sure his expression of personal concern is sincere. But the more he makes this about him, the more he risks offending his most important audiences – including those who have lost loved ones. For them, this has been “very difficult,” too.

During BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis in 2010, the company’s CEO Tony Hayward earned his place in the crisis response hall of shame when he remarked in an interview, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” The media and the public interpreted Hayward’s comment as a shocking pronouncement of BP’s misplaced priorities. Forget the lives lost on the drilling rig, the ecological damage to the Gulf of Mexico and the harm done to businesses and communities along the Gulf Coast. Company management was most upset about the inconvenience and disruption to their personal lives. While that may not have been the reality, that’s the impression Hayward’s comment communicated.

You’ll probably never experience a reputational storm as fierce as the one buffeting Boeing. Nevertheless, the lessons we can learn by going to school on the company’s response are relevant to most crisis situations. Remember the Five Rs in formulating your response and focus your messages and action on non-personal priorities. Of course these situations are difficult (excruciatingly so) for a company’s leader. But “getting your life back” is not what these challenges are all about.

Let’s hope Boeing, one of our nation’s most important companies, gets its 737 MAX back in the air and there’s more blue sky ahead for Dennis Muilenburg. 


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