Flying with the right tone: Muhlenberg and the 737 Max

Families of the passengers… labelled Muilenburg’s appearances as “PR stunts”
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By Kyle Fawkes
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in March of 2019, public opinion of Boeing CEO, Denis Muilenberg, was already souring. With the death toll from the failed 737 Max then topping 346, an already struggling Boeing was on the verge of meltdown and their communications were in shambles.

The New York Times described Muilenburg’s attempts to make apologies as “clumsy” while CBS called him “clinical,” “distant” and “buttoned-up”. Families of the passengers, meanwhile, labelled Muilenburg’s appearances as “PR stunts.” After months of punishing press coverage, Denis Muilenburg was ousted from Boeing.

Yes, there were some clear managerial gaps in how Boeing managed the 737 Max crisis, but public trust was also severely undermined by Muilenburg’s performance as a spokesperson. What Muilenburg – and many others – struggle to understand is that communicating in a crisis is very different than acting as a public relations leader.

Muilenburg, was a company man through and through – from collage intern to CEO and President. Yet, he couldn’t garner the right emotion and sincerity to win over the hearts and minds of the American public yet alone the international audience on which Boeing’s corporate success relies. Instead, the aeronautical technocrat followed instinct: relaying the facts, making formed apologies and reinforcing the integrity of Boeing aircraft. A strategy that was “safe” from a corporate standpoint but politically woeful to an external audience.

So, what can we learn from Denis Muilenburg and the 737 Max saga?

Perhaps the most glaring pitfall was the content of Muilenburg’s interviews. He spent far too much time reassuring people of the safety of the 737 Max. Not that this was necessarily a bad message. Boeing was, at the time, under pressure from airlines to get the Max flying again after a globally-enforced grounding. However, Muilenburg’s overemphasis on the plane’s safety largely came at the expense of airtime to communicate sympathies to the families of the deceased passengers.

Muilenburg and Boeing’s obsessive messaging on the Max’s recertification timeline also contributed to the Federal Aviation Administration feeling “pressured” – again detracting from what should have been front of mind: the families of the crash victims. By the autumn of 2019, Muilenburg acknowledged earlier missteps, saying: “I wish had gone to visit [the families] earlier.”

Another fatal mistake was Muilenburg’s clear lack of ambition to take responsibility. Throughout the ordeal, Muilenburg asserted the accident was caused by a “chain of events” – even blaming the crashes on pilot error. The scapegoating prompted some prominent aerospace commentators to suggest that “lawyers seem to be more in control” of Boeing’s public relations than Muilenburg or their communications team. As one PR expert voiced; Boeing feared the court of law more than the court of public opinion. But with the crisis costing Boeing an estimated 20 billion dollars and legal cases still ongoing, it’s unlikely Boeing “won” in either court.

It turns out that selling safety involves more than attempted avoidance of legal battles. To establish trust, messaging on causation needs to be careful, clear, reliable and unwavering.

The final nail in the coffin for Muilenburg was his tone. As many commented, “He really didn’t look sorry”. To communicate with impacted families, a spokesperson must embrace authenticity and let their emotions shine through. Sometimes this means loosening corporate professionality. But Spokespeople also need the soft skills of speech performance: vocal tone, volume, pacing, body language, and facial expressions to convey emotion. Muilenburg never really had either. As his colleagues pointed out, he was always “a linear thinker better suited at delivering bullet points than connecting with people.” This isn’t entirely his fault. Muilenburg was an engineer by training – a credible background from a technical standpoint, but not one that lends itself to developing skills in emotional communication.

While the spokesperson selection process should, ideally, consider background skillsets, spokespeople also need training. Their performance has to suit the setting – taking careful assessment of the nature of the incident and the expectations of the audience. But here again, Muilenburg seemed to stumble – underestimating the anger and backlash from regulators and the public.

Unfortunately, the Muilenburg story is not unique to the aerospace industry. At Navigate, as crisis communicators for the maritime world, we also see leaders struggle to make the transition between their role as corporate talking heads and crisis managers. In an emergency, the focus needs to be on impacted people – always.

If the public smells a hint of financial imperative, they will become instant detractors. The story cannot only be about “safe” assets, procedures, or training. While these are important aspects to reference, spokespeople must, first and foremost, capture the organic sentiment of human reaction.

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