Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Public Relations (PR)

As Boeing CEO plans his exit, PR pros warn that there’s still turbulence ahead


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

March 26, 2024 | 10 min read

Regaining the trust of airlines, consumers, shareholders and regulators won’t be as easy as tweaking a comms strategy, PR experts say. It demands an organizational overhaul.

Boeing plane boarding

Boeing is maneuvering stormy skies / Kevin Bosc

Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer in the throes of a crisis of consumer trust after a handful of high-profile safety and quality control missteps, is bidding adieu to its CEO, Dave Calhoun. Calhoun is expected to step down at the end of this year. Two other executives, Boeing’s board chair and its head of commercial airplanes, will also resign.

The company is under fire from airlines, consumers and regulators after an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max lost a door plug (a panel on the plan implemented to replace an optional emergency exit door) mid-flight in early January.

The US Department of Justice has since opened a criminal investigation into the incident, seeking to determine whether the event breached the terms of a settlement that it made with Boeing in 2021. That settlement absolved Boeing executives of responsibility for allegedly defrauding the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group and misleading regulators about the quality control of the 737 Max following two crashes of Boeing commercial crafts in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.

In the aftermath of the January Alaska Airlines incident, Boeing has come under increasing scrutiny over what some see as systemic issues within the company that have compromised the safety of its aircraft.

An empty PR move or a sign of change?

Now, with a major leadership shakeup underway, is Boeing headed for a new era of improved standards and safety? Or will consumers interpret the shift as a sheer optics play designed to quell concern without remedying deeper-seated issues internally?

Some communications experts side with the latter perspective. “This is the worst kind of late 20th-century crisis management [tactics]. Didn’t work then – won’t work now,” says Dr Robert Passikoff, founder and president of brand consultancy and market research firm Brand Keys. “This is purely symbolic.”

Calhoun, who said in an interview with CNBC Monday that the decision to leave was “100%“ his own, is set to walk away from Boeing with a payout worth around $24m, per a new report from Fortune. Even if such a large severance package is contractual, Passikoff says it’s “heinous” on principle.

Should the company’s stock make a rebound, Calhoun’s shares and options could be worth upwards of $45m. The story is not far off from that of Calhoun’s predecessor, Dennis Muilenburg, who left the company in 2019 amid its last major PR nightmare, ultimately walking away with no severance but with stock options and assets worth about $80m.

Boeing declined a request for comment.

Despite Passikoff’s skepticism, some PR and communications experts have more faith in the legacy aircraft manufacturer.

“I don’t think [these resignations are] just optics,” says Tim O’Brien, founder of PR firm O’Brien Communications and author of The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process That Fits Your Culture. “They need a new leader to assess the operational and cultural issues at the company and begin a turnaround process in that sense. This is real.”

Weeding out root problems before addressing comms

Of course, any incoming leaders will have their work cut out for them.

In O’Brien’s view, they’ll need to triage organizational issues and solutions while remaining accountable to customers, shareholders, partners and regulators. Fixing organizational issues will need to supersede any focus on the company’s external communications strategy. “You have to get to the root of operational problems. You have to have systems in place to identify the source of the problems, determine if those problems are ongoing, and have a process in place to correct them as quickly as possible,” he says.

This perspective is shared by Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at the University of Louisville, who says that a change in the leadership lineup is “just the first step” and that “systematic challenges internally and externally” will need to be addressed with an overhaul of the company’s culture.

The problems currently plaguing the company have deep roots, according to some.

Many have cited the company’s 1997 merger with aerospace company McDonnell Douglass as the catalyst for a downward slide into poorer manufacturing, quality control and safety. In particular, the merger saw Boeing shift its core business priorities.

“The company [went] all-in on shareholder primacy, the corrosive idea that shareholders matter more than all of the other stakeholders that surround a company,” says Andrew Graham, the founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a New York-based PR firm.

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As he looks ahead, Graham, like both Freberg and O’Brien, suggests that Boeing needs to cut to the root of these problems. Doing so, he suggests, requires the airplane manufacturer to demote shareholder value on its hierarchy of priorities – a change that is sure to impact stock price.

“Shifting the focus away from shareholders and back towards quality and craftsmanship would cause the stock price to slip, but it absolutely has to be done, because airlines, the company’s main customer base, are on record as complaining about the eroding quality of Boeing planes,” he says. “There is no place in the aviation industry for a downmarket, bargain-bin aircraft builder.”

Graham agrees with O’Brien and Freberg that remedying the deep-seated cultural and operational issues at Boeing must come before any concerted effort to polish its comms strategy or rebrand its image. “The more immediate concern,” he says, “is repairing relationships with the airline carriers. The way to stop the bad headlines that everyday consumers see is to stop putting unsafe planes in the sky.”

Winning back public trust

Of course, candid communications – both internally and externally – will eventually play a key role in Boeing’s rebuilding efforts – but are likely to come secondary to fixing the root problems.

To get its comms right, Freberg suggests that Boeing bring together experts across a range of disciplines – including internal leaders in PR, legal, human resources, safety and engineering as well as external consultants and organizations – to provide feedback on Boeing’s progress and advise on brand communications moving forward.

She urges “transparent, open and authentic” communication both internally and externally. “Hosting a microsite with press releases and updates is not enough – what exactly are you doing to address this?”

To Graham, an organizational overhaul at Boeing could actually serve as valuable kindling for an effective communications strategy. “Whoever is steering the ship next needs to radically depart from the shareholders-first model the company has employed since the [McDonnell Douglass] merger,” he says. “From a PR standpoint, one could frame this as restoring balance and reason to how the company uses its vast financial resources and recalibrating who ought to reap the benefits of its success as a profit-driven business.”

That said, Graham also says the broader question of Boeing’s woes underscores the limitations of PR and comms as a practice in Graham’s mind. “Comms just can’t put out these fires on its own, and framing the issue as a PR problem instead of a real business problem gives the wrong people a pass.”

For now, building back will take time. Airlines, shareholders, consumers, regulators and partners won’t forget Boeing’s missteps overnight. And a string of high-profile resignations does little to stitch up underlying organizational problems.

But a Boeing comeback could be possible, experts say, with a dedicated, long-term focus on fixing the brand’s more deep-seated problems.

“It will take some time to restore trust,” says Freberg. “It could be accomplished if there is a fundamental shift and an understanding that things will not change overnight. Crises happen, and brands do recover eventually if they are responsible and make sure they address [key organizational] changes.”

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