For Boeing, the word rescue is too mild. Between the accidents with Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, 346 people died. The stock price tanked. For nine months, there's been no apparent development suggesting that things will get better. Finally, the company shed itself of CEO Dennis Muilenberg, but not before having an enormous pile of problems.
Forget the stock loss. Forget the mess the company has plunged itself into up to now. The flying public knows about the deaths. And reports say that many consumers will avoid the 737 MAX when it returns to the air.
Boeing has said that it will work to earn trust, but how could they do it? Here's one thought: Have top management put themselves on the line constantly by placing their posteriors into the seats of one of those planes. Prove to the average person that the MAX is safe.
That doesn't mean creating a photo op, like Barack Obama drinking a glass of filtered water from Flint to demonstrate that the treated water was drinkable. No one would buy it outside of the company's chosen PR firm and they only would because they're paid to.
Instead, the company needs to show strong, continued, and repeated confidence in the craft. The new permanent CEO and other executives should set up shop in the planes. Use online Internet and in-plane phones. Have video meetings. Work via collaboration, chat, and email software. If really necessary, swing by the main office for such occasions. Switch off between carriers and make the plane the office five days a week, returning on weekends to family and changes of clothing.
It is true that the public often forgets bad PR after a few months. Boeing's position is so extreme and unusual, though, that it would be impossible to count on the quick mutability of memory. The company needs a massive and palpable gesture. Having top executives, or at least the CEO, working constantly on the planes--meeting with consumers, airlines, and the press at airports and other cities--would do wonders to reassure the public, companies doing business with Boeing, and Wall Street.
Such a plan would go well beyond a stunt and provide the following benefits:
- Serious intent. People typically discount obvious public relations moves. Anyone can say anything. But when a company's chief executive is the one being exposed to potential problems it seems more serious. If there really were a safety issue, wouldn't he or she be the first to know and head for the nearest exit?
- Sustained effort. Publicity stunts come and go. They're designed to get some so-called earned media attention over a short span of time. Something like this, running for six months or even perhaps a year, repeats and reinforces the message. If taking a MAX really was dangerous, why would someone smart enough to run a big company keep getting on the plane? There are other jobs in the world.
- Connecting with people. Boeing's customers are airlines that depend on the good will of people willing to spend money and time on one of its aircraft. The executives working on the planes and in the airports could meet with thousands of them around the world over time, influencing attitudes.
Arguments that this wouldn't be a productive use of executive time would miss the point. It would be the most productive thing they could do, given how important the plane is to the company and the industry. Prove to the public that worries are a thing of the past.