In a Crisis, Actions Sometimes Speak Louder than Facts

In a crisis, actions always speak louder than words. In some cases, actions even speak louder than facts.

Boeing has been widely criticized for not acknowledging a potential problem with its planes after two 737 Maxes crashed in similar fashion four months apart. Boeing leaders initially insisted that the planes were safe, even after the second crash on March 10. Boeing kept the planes in service everywhere they could, until virtually every country with an airport forbade them to fly pending an investigation.

The company finally apologized and acknowledged its role in the “chain of events” leading to the crashes. But those comments came almost a month after the March 10 crash and only after the release of a preliminary report, a delay that only added to the negative perceptions of Boeing.

Then, while passengers continued to wonder if and when the 737 Max would fly again — or if they would want to board one — The New York Times found “a culture that often valued production speed over quality” in producing 787 Dreamliners at a South Carolina Boeing facility. The Times said workers there have filed almost a dozen whistleblower cases citing safety concerns and quality problems.

The Times story, published April 20, prompted this from a Boeing executive: “Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history. I am proud of our teams’ exceptional commitment to quality and stand behind the work they do each and every day.”

Are safety and quality concerns based on the facts? Maybe, maybe not. But in a crisis of confidence, how a company acts — not what it says — is what really matters.

Tylenol’s reaction to the poisoning deaths of seven customers in 1982 remains a case study in how to manage a crisis of confidence. In that case, someone who has never been caught placed cyanide inside Tylenol capsules and replaced the bottles on store shelves. Tylenol was not responsible for the deaths, but acted as if it were – by recalling all of its Tylenol nationwide and adopting tamper-proof packaging that became an industry standard. That enabled the company to re-establish its credibility and recover its entire market share within a year.

Should Boeing have voluntarily grounded its planes before it was forced to? Taking a step like that is counterintuitive. Our first inclination is to hit back when our reputation is maligned or when we think the facts are on our side. But proclaiming innocence is never enough to resolve a reputational crisis.

Companies that are successful in pulling out of a crisis act quickly to:

  • Express empathy.
  • Explain what they are doing to protect the public.
  • Explain the steps they are taking to learn all the facts.

Then, they continually report their progress. In other words, companies can’t insist their way out of a crisis. They can only act their way out. If it turns out the facts are also on their side, well, that’s even better.