Boeing's Direct Approach On 787 Communications

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The 787's mandatory stand-down created two separate but closely linked issues for the good folks at Boeing. 

One of them--fixing the electrical system--merited a no-brainer response backed with a lot of brainpower to get straight. The second--addressing the PR fallout from grounding any aircraft, let alone one tapped to "change the world in untold ways and endure long after we are gone"--should be easier to solve. Whether it requires a solution is debatable. 

While many a crisis communications person will disagree, it says here that Boeing could have justified assuming a much lower public profile and focused solely on solving the bigger problem. 

It's worked before.

When Rolls-Royce stayed all but mum in the wake of British Airways 38 and Qantas 32, the company's approach was largely clubbed. PR pros point to volumes of thoughtfully crafted theory to back these attacks. A bit harder for said comms pros to finger: evidence that revenue-generating passengers avoided Trent-powered 777s or A380s.

Boeing and Rolls-Royce faced different situations. While Trents required modifications to fix the problems that contributed to the British Airways and Qantas incidents, the fixes weren't accomplished amid a backdrop of grounded aircraft. In addition, airframe OEMs have bigger brands than anybody else in aviation save airlines. With big brands comes the responsibility to promote--and also to protect.

Boeing has opted for an aggressive form of brand protection, primarily by taking more control to shape its messages.  The company posts regular updates on the 787 battery modification effort, supplemented by more information on lithium ion batteries, airplane electrical systems, aircraft design changes, and supply chains than most folks would ever care to know. (This site's readers, of course, are part the exception, not the rule.) The website hosting all of this is linked directly from Boeing's home page--further indication of Boeing's intention to put this information out front.

 

Granted, Boeing's 787 updates site, while informative, stops well short of being the definitive source on all things Boeing 787 Grounding. Hard-working scribes (like this Guy) are enlightening highly engaged readers earlier and more completely than Boeing's official channels. And while the site not-so-subtly slots the 787 into an evolutionary chronology that stretches all the way back to the Brothers Wright, it vectors right around more relevant comparisons, such as why it is sticking by lithium ion batteries when other capable aircraft builders are not.

Boeing's 787 communications strategy may not be ground-breaking, but it qualifies as rare in the aviation business. Usually, OEMs and airlines are all but mute as incident investigations, especially ones run by NTSB, play out. Part of this is NTSB protocol, but lot of it is a calculated strategy: shape the story and add context through media briefings--often done on background--and hope for the best.

For whatever reason, Boeing is straying from the status quo. Maybe it's what's at stake for this particular company in this particular case. Maybe it's a sign of aviation companies adopting the growing trend of bypassing traditional media outlets in an effort to shape the story directly. The next incident--and how those at the center of it respond--should help provide the answer.

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