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Crisis Communications

How Boeing Ruined its Reputation for Safety

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.

–– Warren Buffet

By John Millen

During the past few weeks, the stellar reputations of two United States aviation-related organizations were badly tarnished by a series of puzzling, ill-advised decisions.

Their missteps provide leaders with important lessons on keeping faith with customers and other stakeholders, particularly when it’s inconvenient to do so.

Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have been the gold standard, respectively, for the design and production of world-class aircraft and the regulation of aviation.

Their websites proclaim their unwavering commitment to the safety of airline passengers.
Boeing’s Website:
Enduring Values
At Boeing, we are committed to a set of core values that not only define who we are, but also serve as guideposts to help us become the company we would like to be. And we aspire to live these values every day.
We value human life and well-being above all else and take action accordingly.
FAA’s Website:
Safety: The Foundation of Everything We Do
At FAA, what drives us — through everything we do — is our mission to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. We continually strive to improve the safety and efficiency of flight in this country.
These proclamations were put to the test when Boeing’s newest airliner, the 737 Max 8, crashed shortly after takeoff in Ethiopia killing the passengers and crew. While issuing statements of sympathy for families, Boeing insisted the plane was safe and should continue to fly.

This is curious because it was the second crash of this model. Six months earlier an Indonesian Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff under similar circumstances, killing the crew and passengers.

Boeing all but proclaimed the Indonesian crash pilot error. And seemingly as the Ethiopian crash was still smoldering, Boeing and the FAA rushed to assure us that the Max 8 was “safe and airworthy.”

Crash in the U.S.?
One has to wonder how Boeing and the FAA would have reacted if either of the crashes was on U.S. soil by an airline, such as Southwest. This was the thought I had as I sat on a Southwest Boeing 737 (not a Max 8), as I often do on Monday mornings. 

On this morning, I was unsettled by the fact that neither Boeing nor the FAA had called for the plane to be temporarily grounded. As the plane took off, I used my phone to sell all of my Boeing stock. I told friends and associates that if Boeing wasn’t proactive, it would be forced to ground the planes soon.

My concern was more than personal. For some twenty years, I had advised senior leaders of companies in crisis on their responses. Though I no longer work on crises, I still retain a visceral reaction to companies that fail to respond appropriately to safety concerns. 

Lost their way
For Boeing and the FAA, it is abundantly clear that they had lost their way. Consider the facts for two organizations that proclaim safety:

*     Some 170 737 Max 8’s were in service. Two had crashed. In other words, more than one percent of this new model had fatal crashes. Yet, Boeing and the FAA continued to echo their message that the Max 8 plane was safe.

*     After the first crash killed 189 people, Boeing said it was working on an update to the plane’s software. But the Max 8 plane was safe.

*     After the second crash killed 157 people, while the cause was unknown, Boeing reaffirmed that it was still working on the software update. But the Max 8 plane was safe.

*     As airlines and regulators around the world grounded the planes and banned them from their airspace, Boeing and the FAA continued to echo the Max 8 plane was safe.

*     The FAA argued there was “not enough evidence to justify grounding” the Max 8. In a bizarre turn on safety regulation, the FAA was arguing that a plane that had had two fatal crashes was presumed safe until proven unsafe?

*    Finally, as an exclamation point on poor crisis response, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao hurriedly scheduled herself on a Max 8 Southwest flight from Austin to Washington, D.C.

The highest-level safety regulator in the U.S. pulled a publicity stunt to “prove” that the Max 8 was safe. In essence, she was saying, “See, my flight didn’t crash. The Max 8 plane is safe!”

More sad evidence continues to come to light, such as Boeing pitching the plane as a simple upgrade to avoid pilot retraining; the FAA allowing Boeing to self-certify its work; little to no information or training being provided to pilots; no testing of how pilots would react to Max 8 specific emergencies; and, perhaps most flagrant, basic safety warning lights and alarm systems were sold as additional add-ons.

Even aviation hero Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger criticized Boeing and the FAA. He wrote that "there is too cozy a relationship between the industry and the regulators" for proper oversight to be ensured.    

Boeing’s response
Finally succumbing to public and passenger pressure, the FAA on March 13 announced a temporary grounding of all 737 Max 8 planes. Boeing issued this statement from Dennis Muilenburg, president, CEO, and Chairman of The Boeing Company, which rang hollow:

On behalf of the entire Boeing team, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in these two tragic accidents. We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution. Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes; and it always will be. 

There is no greater priority for our company and our industry. We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements, and help ensure this does not happen again.

Too little, too late. Boeing and the FAA have lost trust and severely tarnished their reputations worldwide.

I work with clients in insurance and financial services, pharmaceuticals, technology, and other industries that make various promises of safety and security. In the end, trust is all they have.

The lesson for leaders is clear. If your organization’s core promise is to provide safety and security for people, that must be prioritized – even when it conflicts with other valuable interests. 

How about you? 
What core promise does your organization make to people who rely on you?
How strong is your commitment? Will it hold up under the pressure of other competing interests?
It’s worth considering since a reputation of trust can be destroyed in no time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please reach me directly on my contact page.

Leadership Lessons from Southwest Airlines Flight 1380

As a leadership coach and speaker, I’m on the road virtually every week and, if I’m traveling in the U.S., I’ll likely be on Southwest Airlines. It’s been my go-to carrier since forming my consulting practice 14 years ago. 

That’s why I paid particular attention to a CBS morning interview, which I happened to catch live in an airport, with the whole crew of Southwest Flight 1380.

You might recall SWA #1380 was the plane that had an engine explosion that took the life of a passenger on April 17. My condolences to the family of that passenger, Jennifer Riodan, whose death was the first fatality on a U.S. airline since 2009. As the captain said in her interview, "The survival of 148 never eclipses the loss of one.”

Lessons in leadership
As I listened to the interview with the five crew members, I realized I was hearing powerful lessons of leadership, teamwork, and communication in the workplace. I re-watched the interview that night in my hotel room, taking careful notes, so that I could share them with you.

The flight had taken off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. After reaching cruising altitude the left engine exploded, sending debris through a passenger window. This caused the plane to lose cabin pressure and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling.

Try to imagine how you might react in this terrifying situation as a pilot, a flight attendant, or a passenger. You hear a loud explosion, the plane banks steeply, your ears pop from sudden decompression, wind and debris are blowing through the cabin, and you are looking for some sense of reassurance that you will survive.

Many passengers began texting what they thought might have been their final messages to their loved ones.

Here are some of the leadership lessons I heard from the crew of Flight 1380:

Calm leadership in the cockpit
Though this crew had never worked together before, they reported a sense of calm and confidence throughout the flight, conveyed from the cockpit to the flight attendants to the passengers. 

The plane was piloted by Capt. Tammie Jo Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor. Shults was one of the first women Navy fighter pilots, who flew F/A-18 Hornets and trained other military pilots. She said her military training kicked in immediately.

"I have been in cockpits where the dynamics of the flight are not normal and they also make it hard to even see or read the instrumentation. So that certainly helped to kind of keep my calm when this sudden explosion happened, and we are moving in a radical way and we're not in balanced flight," she said. 

Her first officer Ellisor was at the controls when the engine exploded. The plane, which was on auto-pilot, suddenly veered to the left, the wing banked 40 degrees, and the plane began to descend. Ellisor took manual control of the plane and he and Shults assessed the situation and began to work through their checklists. They determined Philadelphia was the best emergency landing spot and began their procedures.

"Initially our job is to get on oxygen to take care of ourselves first," Ellisor said, "communicate with ourselves, and once we take care of the plane and get the first initial checklist, then our job is to talk to the flight attendants and find out, okay, what's going on back there, how are you doing."

Communicate with the team
Shults said her first officer made sure the team was informed. "He made keeping in contact with the flight attendants his priority," Shults said.

"He took care of switches, checklists, but he was always available when they called so that he could answer their questions, he could give them information because it's so different when you're in the back and you don't see what's happening, you have no control of what's happening and you don't know what they're doing or thinking about, so he kept them calm," she said.

That communication gave the flight attendants the knowledge and assurance to help their passengers. “We had confidence we were all going to make it. We had faith and confidence in our pilots. We kept that confidence the whole way through and let them (the passengers) know,” said flight attendant Seanique Mallory.
Build trust before you need it
Captain Shults said the airline’s usual procedure is to have a “huddle” first thing in the morning to discuss the routes and the weather, which they did prior to their first morning trip from Nashville to La Guardia. 
But Shults thinks it’s important for leaders to get to know their team on another level. “The protocol at Southwest is to have a morning brief, but I tend to go deeper just because people are deeper than the weather. We spoke about things that were a little more interesting than just the weather. 
"In LaGuardia, when we had a little extra time, we were chatting, and Rachel had gotten a new Bible with room to journal on the side, and she and Seanique and then Kathryn was talking about she was in a study of Psalms, which is where I'm doing a study in Psalms and Proverbs," Shults said. 

Creating a bond of trust
"When you talk about things deeper than the weather, your family and faith, the things that matter to you, even if they're different, it tends to bring a bond."

The crew’s shared values had given them a bond and a deeper sense of confidence when tragedy struck.

"Well, it was the peace that God had given us all. It's a peace that surpasses all understanding. Like Tammie Jo said, we came together beforehand and we all talked about God, and not knowing what was going to happen minutes later, God had already prepared us without us even knowing," Mallory said.

Trust enables communication
"We didn't have to communicate verbally with each other because we just had trust and we were able to just do what we needed to do. But to communicate with our passengers we had to have a very loud, stern but caring voice," said flight attendant Rachel Fernheimer.

"I would just grab their hands even if I had to stretch over into a window seat and I would just look into some of their bloodshot eyes and say, 'Look at me. We're going to be okay. We're going to make it. We are going to Philadelphia and we are here together.' 

“And I think that was the most important thing was to just – even though our ears had popped from the rapid decompression and there was wind and debris all throughout the cabin, in the midst of chaos you have to just look at someone. And I think eye contact was the biggest communication during that," Fernheimer said.

“We had to take ourselves out of the equation and realize it wasn’t about us at that moment, it was all about our passengers.”
Flight attendant Kathryn Sandoval agreed, “The way we all remained calm, reflected on the passengers because they saw we were calm.”
As a leader or team member you’ll hopefully never face a crisis as terrifying as Flight #1380, but you can apply these important lessons in creating calm and confidence with your leadership, teamwork, and communication.

You can watch the interview here:
 Southwest Flight Crew on CBS TV interview

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Goodbye 'Friendly' Skies: United Airlines CEO's Critical Mistake

Rules of Customer Service
Rule # 1: The Customer is Always Right
Rule # 2: If the Customer is Wrong, Refer to Rule # 1
I was traveling on business last weekend and only saw the United Airlines passenger video in passing on an airport TV monitor.
On Tuesday morning, a long-time friend and Sunday Coffee reader texted me:
Bob: Hope you’ll be writing about UAL on Sunday.
Me: Ha! That story writes itself. Wow, what were they thinking? That would be perfect (for Sunday Coffee) but I’m not doing the reputation stuff now. Hope you’re well.
Bob: It’s a story about leadership communication. Did you hear the CEO? C’mon John!
Me: [Long pause] I know. You’re right…
At that point, I hadn’t directly heard the CEO, but I had heard Jimmy Kimmel make fun of his statement.
Though I’ve handled more than my share of crises for Fortune 100 companies in my career, I’m not going to pile on about poor crisis management.
In a crisis, we talk about the need for immediate action, emphasizing safety and security, transparency and constant communication. But the most relevant factor that applies to the United Airlines debacle is customer empathy.
Extreme Empathy
I just want to make one point for those of you who might be called on to communicate in adversity: in a crisis situation, it’s critical to express what I call “extreme empathy” for people – customers, employees, donors, investors and others.
That means it is not possible for you to be too empathetic in expressing your concern for people who have gone through a traumatic situation. The reason for this is that everyone is watching this mistreatment and wondering if the same might happen to them.
This applies in whatever business, industry or organization you represent. When people have been wronged you need to quickly, sincerely and fully express your empathy for them, no matter the circumstances.
Corporate Speak
Without covering the landscape of other errors, a lack of empathy was the primary mistake of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. In a statement released Monday night, Munoz was quoted as saying:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
This is the worst kind of corporate speak. The primary issue is that a passenger was forcibly dragged from a plane and bloodied by airport security officers, resulting in a concussion, broken nose and lost teeth.  In the horrific video, you can hear a woman repeatedly screaming “Oh my God!” conveying the raw emotion humans feel in primal moments.
Yet the statement apologizes for having to “re-accommodate” passengers! That’s why Jimmy Kimmel and others had a field day with this statement, hoping they wouldn’t be “re-accommodated.” The statement ignores the stark, brutal reality of this incident.
The public backlash was immediate from all stakeholders, including investors who drove down UAL stock. By Tuesday, Munoz attempted to recover by expressing the missing empathy.
Munoz said: “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened,” Munoz said Tuesday, in marked contrast to his Monday statement.
“Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated in this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”
But it was too late. The damage was done.
Corporate Culture
I won’t go into detail here, but I believe the larger problem lies with United’s flawed culture, which is not customer-focused. Emerging from bankruptcy and merging with Continental Airlines years ago has left the company with a profit-focused culture.
That’s why they have some seven levels of passenger classes on their planes, including the recently announced “economy” where you’re not pre-assigned a seat and can’t use the overhead bins for your luggage, or some such humiliation.

This is the culture that allowed employees to call security to forcibly drag a passenger from the plane to make room for other employees.
Contrast that with the culture of Southwest Airlines, my airline of choice unless I have an international destination. I cannot even conceive of a circumstance in which a Southwest employee would consider calling to have a passenger forcibly removed from a plane, other than for being violent or doing something illegal.
More likely, if it ever got to the point of a passenger refusing to leave the plane, I would imagine a flight attendant standing next to him and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this passenger is a doctor who is trying to get home to treat his patients in the morning. Would any of you be willing to give up your seat so he can travel tonight?”
I believe other passengers would stand up without even being offered a larger incentive because they know Southwest has its customers’ interests at heart and will do the right thing in most any situation. That’s an expression of the company culture with employees making good on a brand promise.
The larger lesson is clear for leaders facing an adverse event internally or externally: express extreme empathy for those who have been hurt.
If you don’t agree with this, please refer to customer rules # 1 and # 2 above.
What do you think? You can tell me your stories, thoughts or ideas by commenting below.

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GM CEO Mary T. Barra Releases Report Indicting Company Culture

General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra spoke to 1,000 company employees last week about the "deeply troubling" report that found the company had hidden an ignition switch defect in millions of cars, causing at least 13 deaths and 54 accidents. Industry and safety experts expect the final numbers to be much higher. 'New GM'

In defending the company's reputation, Barra and her communications team have positioned the new CEO as leader of the "new" GM versus the "old" GM responsible for hiding and ignoring the defects for more than a decade.

Positioning the old versus new GM is an interesting strategy, complicated or necessitated by the fact that Barra is a 30-year employee of the company. As she spoke to employees about the report, Barra was open and personal in her reactions.

'Saddened and disturbed'

"For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly," Barra said. "I was deeply saddened and disturbed as I read the report."

(While she has clearly has some media training, Barra could use additional communications coaching, as demonstrated in her rather awkward Congressional testimony.)

Written by former United States attorney Anton R. Valukas, the 300-plus page report details GM's company culture regarding safety as secretive, uncaring and bureaucratic.

Critics will continue to argue that an "independent" investigation--paid for by GM--reached conclusions that ultimately protect GM's interests.

'Best Report Money Can Buy'

"It seems like the best report money can buy," said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). "It absolves upper management, denies deliberate wrongdoing and dismisses corporate culpability."

As this crisis continues, GM will need to communicate consistently and compassionately, while making amends, as it rebuilds its reputation with consumers. Having said that, the company last month had record sales.

Another paradox of reputation management.

What do you think of GM? Leave your thoughts below.

Lesson from Manti Te’o: On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Dog

Manti Teo Reputation Group

Manti Teo Reputation Group Traveling on business for the past week, I caught only bits and pieces of the Manti Te’o, Lance Armstrong news cycles--on airport and hotel TVs.

Back home now, I’ve caught up and seen more than enough of these crisis communications interviews, attempts to save their reputations.

I wrote about Lance here in October and I stand by my prescription for saving his personal brand. The consensus seems to be that he came off poorly, not seeming to be apologetic enough.  I agree, but I’m not sure he’s capable of warmth and emotion, no matter how much media training he goes through.

‘I wasn’t as forthcoming...’

More interesting to me is perplexing story of Manti Te’o, the Heisman Trophy candidate from Notre Dame.  Considering the information available, it’s difficult to determine how or whether he was complicit in the fabrication or perpetuation of his imaginary girlfriend.

Katie Couric’s interview yesterday wasn’t helpful in clarifying, when Manti used what is no doubt a coached-line: “I wasn’t as forthcoming, but I didn’t lie.”  What 20-year-old says “forthcoming?” OK, and don’t get me started on the internal logic of this.

‘He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.’ 

I just advocate that clients come clean and not parse confessions like this because they end up dancing, seeming evasive or contradicting themselves, as Manti did later in the interview. “The biggest lie I’m sorry for is the lie that I told my dad.”

Of course, then Dad, who reportedly told tales of Manti meeting his “girlfriend” on visits to Hawaii, defended his son: “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.”  I’m not going there. Let this speak for itself.

Redefining Relationships in the Digital Age

The one issue that is really interesting in all of this is: regardless of Manti’s role, there is an obvious difference in the way we are all redefining relationships in the digital age.

If we take college student Manti Te’o at his word, he at some point believed that someone he had never met in person was his “girlfriend.”  Still, he says he had a deep emotional attachment to her.

Is this how we now define “girlfriend”? Is this how college students are defining “partners”? In general, probably not.  But what’s the difference between this and having hundreds or thousands of “Friends” on Facebook, whom you’ve never met?

The nature of relationships is being redefined on online.  I have people I communicate with around the world, most of whom I’ve never met. I’ve not talked with them on the phone, nor on Skype.  I only “know” they exist because I’ve seen their LinkedIn profiles, their websites or other elements of their digital footprints.

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog

This all made me recall the famous New Yorker cartoon in which one dog is online in front of a computer and says to another dog, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” You can see this cartoon, which is now 20 years old (same age as Manti!) here on Wikipedia.

Increasingly, this is the nature of relationships.  We are more connected with more people everyday, but the sheer volume can detract of intimacy of relationships.

It seems often to be more about quantity than quality.  I don’t know the absolute answer, but my more recent commitment has been to focus on developing deeper, more meaningful relationships with fewer people.

Taking Relationships Offline

This means taking those relationships off line. In person is best. But “in-person” is redefined if we’re in different parts of the world or otherwise separated. It means seeing each other on Skype, or Google Chat, and talking by phone.

It means making a real, verifiable connection.

Obviously, we never can really fully know other people, but in the digital age we should attempt to keep our relationships real, however we define it.

Manti Te’o’s situation should give us a moment to rethink relationships in a digital world.

We email, text, and Tweet, but are we really connecting?

What are your thoughts?  Are you connecting more or less?

Leave your response below.

photo credit: Neon Tommy via photopin cc

3 Lessons for Leaders from Pres. Obama's School Shooting Crisis Response

Leader Lessons from Pres. Obama Response to School Shooting Note: We don't do political commentary here. I wrote this post this morning to see if I could channel my anger and sadness about this horrible school shooting into something constructive.


Every leader of people, no matter how small the group, should listen and learn:

President Obama's weekly address this morning focused on the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT. In two minutes, the President:

1. Connected emotionally. His words are personalized as speaks of  his and his wife's feelings and empathizes with the parents of the lost children, and all parents.

2. Calls for action. The President puts the shooting in a larger context and sets the stage for a national discussion. He calls for "meaningful action...regardless of politics."

3. Uses non-verbal body language. Counter to Obama's reputation of coolness, he expresses his grief and connects. His eyes show his sadness, with some tearing. He is somber and subdued.

My message to CEOs and other leaders is always to remind them that people won't remember what you said, nor what you did. They only remember how you made them feel.

In a crisis, people need you more than ever. Be open, present and caring. Nothing else matters.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those effected by this tragedy.




On Friday, we learned that more than two dozen people were killed when a gunman opened fire in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Most of those who died were just young children with their whole lives ahead of them. And every parent in America has a heart heavy with hurt.

Among the fallen were also teachers – men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.

So our hearts are broken today. We grieve for the families of those we lost. And we keep in our prayers the parents of those who survived.  Because as blessed as they are to have their children home, they know that their child’s innocence has been torn away far too early.

As a nation, we have endured far too many of these tragedies in the last few years. An elementary school in Newtown. A shopping mall in Oregon. A house of worship in Wisconsin. A movie theater in Colorado. Countless street corners in places like Chicago and Philadelphia.

Any of these neighborhoods could be our own. So we have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this. Regardless of the politics.

This weekend, Michelle and I are doing what I know every parent is doing – holding our children as close as we can and reminding them how much we love them.

There are families in Connecticut who can’t do that today. And they need all of us now. Because while nothing can take the place of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need – to remind them that we are there for them; that we are praying for them; and that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their own memories, but also in their community, and their country.

Thank you.