It was always going to be a challenging press conference.
Six months to the day after the first of two deadly crashes of its 737 Max jets, Boeing president, chief executive and chairman Dennis Muilenburg faced the media after the company’s annual meeting on Monday.
Boeing’s handling of the on-going crisis media management incident has been widely described as a ‘case study in how not to do it’, so did it fare any better during the press conference at its headquarter in Chicago?
Mr Muilenburg began the press conference with an apology, which was the right approach.
But it was an apology which sounded heavily scripted and consequently did not feel particularly sincere.
He said: “All of us at Boeing are deeply sorry for the loss of life in the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion air flight 610 accidents. We feel the immense gravity of these events and we recognise the devastation to the families and friends of the loved ones who have perished. There is nothing more important to us than the safety of the people who fly on aeroplanes.”
The most effective corporate apologies are those that sound human and natural, but this lacks those sentiments.
It was also a brisk apology as the Boeing boss rapidly moved on to a series of stats aimed at stressing his company’s safety record. Reassurance is a key part of an effective crisis response, but with the gravity of this incident and the death toll – 346 people - it felt like more time should have been spent expressing sympathy before looking to move on.
Dodging the question
The overriding feeling from the press conference was that this was an exercise in dodging and side-stepping questions.
Answers were lengthy and often appeared to have little resemblance to the questions asked.
Take this exchange, for example, in which Mr Muilenburg was asked whether he should resign:
Reporter: “In the light of the crisis facing your company and in the interests of re-earning the trust of the public, have you considered resigning?”
Mr Muilenburg: “Well, I think the important thing here is that we are very focused on safety and I can tell you that both these accidents weigh heavily on us as a company. I have had the privilege of working for the Boeing company for 34 years and we know that lives depend on what we do. We take that very seriously and I have had the privilege of doing that for my entire career and I can tell you that our Boeing employees as well take that very seriously. I’m very focused on safety going forward. It is important as a company we have those clear priorities, we’re taking the right actions and have the right culture.”
Mr Muilenberg actually went on to say that his “clear intent is to continue to lead on the front of safety, quality and integrity”, but because he got to that point so late in his response, it created a perception that he had tried to avoid the question.
Breaking News: Boeing CEO dodges resignation question Sky News
To avoid this, he should have acknowledged the question by saying something like “that’s a fair question”, talked briefly about his intention to continue to lead and then moved on to how safety has been such a key feature during is 34 years at Boeing.
Questions about whether flaws in the MCAS (the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system) were to blame, were parried and dodged.
If the aim of the press conference was to reassure the public, then this was a flawed approach to questions.
While his lawyers may have advised him not to admit any fault, his answers lacked the honesty and transparency needed to reassure the public during a crisis media management incident.
This was a press conference which offered little in the way of anything new on a crisis that has triggered the grounding of Boeing's fastest-selling plane.
In fact, Mr Muilenburg simply reiterated the same script that the company has been using since the crashes – Boeing ‘owns’ the responsibility to update its software but is not directly responsible for the disasters . The crashes were caused by a ‘chain of events’ which Boeing’s sensors and software were only part of.
There was of course always going to be plenty of interest in Boeing’s annual meeting this time around, but for other organisations it is worth remembering that press conferences should be reserved for when they have something new to say and when news breaks. Press conferences which offer little in the way of new information tend to lead to frustrated reporters.
This was a brief press conference, certainly a lot shorter than reporters seemed to be anticipating or had been led to believe.
The question and answer session lasted just 15 minutes and it seems the media had been expecting something closer to double that. In that time he answered just six questions and a number of reporters were not given the opportunity to speak.
I wouldn't say he stormed out. He left the podium briskly. Presser was supposed to be 20-30 minutes, ended after 15.— Scott Hamilton (@LeehamNews) April 29, 2019
It was pre-advertised at "20, 30 mins" - safe to say it was cut short.— Doug Cameron (@dougcameron) April 29, 2019
Consequently, as Mr Muilenburg left the stage, a series of questions were shouted at him from frustrated reporters.
One said: “Sir, wait a minute, 346 people died – can you answer a few questions here about that?”
It resulted in a very untidy and uncomfortable ending which added to the impression that the company did not want to face tough questions.
It is important that it is made clear to reporters at the start of a press conference how long it will last and that those timings are stuck to.
What was good, however, was that having decided to leave, the Boeing boss resisted the temptation to respond to the questions asked from the floor. This often happens and it does not look good on camera.
But it wasn’t all bad. Mr Muilenburg appeared to listen attentively to the questions asked and maintained good eye contact with the reporter as he provided his answer.
And while he looked grim-faced, particularly at the end, he also came across as being composed, showing no sign of being rattled by the challenging nature of the questions asked.
Overall, however, this is a crisis media management press conference that could have gone much better and ultimately seems to have done little to improve Boeing’s current reputation.
#Boeing’s boss, Dennis Muilenberg, did his little speech at the press and then dipped out after his press conference today regarding the 737-Max planes. His apologies also don’t feel/seem sincere if I’m honest. #ITVNews— Melvin (@MTKigz) April 29, 2019
that Boeing press conference told us nothing in my opinion. little sympathy for the families & those affected, all that was said was PR nonsense. CEO walked off the stage to journalists shouting questions. that didn’t go well...— Lucy Isabel || #MV33🦁🇳🇱 (@verstopper) April 29, 2019
I feel less confident in Boeing now after watching his press conference. Never did he answer the questions. Never did he admit to design fault. He seemed to be just reading an autocue! At the end of the day, I would’t want to fly this fundamentally aerodynamically flawed plane... https://t.co/UBmNOnYA4n— Wayne Kwong (@waynewykwong) April 29, 2019
*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
Subscribe here to be among the first to receive our blogs.