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Public trust on Boeing brand remains in question following fatal 737 MAX crash

Boeing has been making headlines globally after its 737 MAX 8 aircraft saw the second deadly crash in five months, ensuing a flight ban on the aircraft model in several countries. Over the last two days, the European Union, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand were some of the countries to have grounded its Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 flights. Boeing’s shares also tumbled 8% on Monday, and about 5% during mid-day trade yesterday, according to Reuters.

Since the unfortunate incident, Boeing has issued daily statements and updates on its website. On the day of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, it said that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew.” On Monday, Boeing explained how it has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX in the aftermath of the Lion Air crash last October to “make an already safe aircraft even safer.”

In response to the flight bans, Boeing said yesterday that it understands that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets. It also added that the company will continue to engage with them to “ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets.”

While Boeing has expressed sympathy for the victims of the crash, some PR professionals Marketing spoke to on the matter said that its responses so far were still falling short, given that several authorities have already issued orders to ground the 737 MAX. Speaking under anonymity, one PR professional of a global network said, “Are [the statements] enough to appease rising fears and doubts over the safety of its best-selling plane that is flown across the world? I don’t think so.”

She added:

The longer Boeing stays nonchalant on any potential safety issues, and the longer it doesn’t proactively show that it is putting its customers and passengers first over commercial interests, the quicker trust and credibility will be eroded.

Noting that Boeing seems “reluctant to issue new guidance” on the aircraft in question, the PR professional added  that the aircraft manufacturer should bear in mind that transparent dialogue on airline incidents and the open sharing of best practices have always been the cornerstone of aviation safety.

Insufficient communication?

At the point of writing, Boeing had however already said that it will send a technical team to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the direction of the Ethiopia Accident Investigation Bureau and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The outcome, as well as how the company communicates during the period of investigation, will dictate whether the brand can overcome the “crisis of confidence”, said Hume Brophy Singapore managing director Carolyn Camoens. She said,

In a vacuum of information, everyone tends to assume the worst. Until the full facts are known, it needs to demonstrate a level of urgency and action that matches the gravity of this tragedy.

Camoens added that proactive, regular, open communication is key at this time. Given the regrettable major loss of life, humane communication is pivotal.

“Boeing has many stakeholders it needs to manage at this time – regulators, airlines and the public at large. They will all have the same concerns – passenger safety – but need to be engaged differently. Boeing will need to prepared to engage with breadth and depth to come through this dark hour,” added Camoens.

Extent of brand damage

Meanwhile, Landor’s president of Southeast Asia, Asia Pacific and Japan, Nick Foley said that he expects the damage to the brand to be low for now as most people are still speculating on the reason for crash. However, it will take “considerable” time and effort to regain confidence – if Boeing is at fault, especially given that the Boeing 737 MAX was newly launched.

He added, “As the old saying goes, it takes years to build trust, but can be gone in seconds. Airbus experienced similar uncertainty ten or so years ago when some of its A330’s suddenly went into computer activated nose-dives.”

Even though Boeing is a B2B brand, the court of public opinion counts substantially. Airlines know they have a choice. In this instance that choice is the Airbus A320.

Camoens agreed, citing United Airline’s PR crisis in 2017, after a passenger put up a video of a 69-year-old doctor being dragged out of the plane due to overbooking. She said, “In the same industry, recently, we have the example of United to show us that public opinion has a huge impact on the business, and consequently commercial decision making.”

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore announced a temporarily suspension of all variants of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft into and out of Singapore yesterday. SilkAir, which operates six Boeing 737 MAX aircrafts, will be affected, but a travel advisory on SilkAir’s Facebook page said that its other 17 Boeing 737-800NGs remain in operations.

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