In Essays, Innovation

Boeing’s 737 Max woes have the experts out in droves with opinions about what the publicity means for the company’s reputation. Here’s a shorthand answer:

Nothing.

Most of the blather about corporate reputation centers on contending with the vicissitudes of media coverage. Boeing should have said so-and-so, or said something sooner. Social media posts reveal this or that. Look at the stock price and how it’s moving up, or down.

Only publicity doesn’t matter, beyond making executives uncomfortable and giving communicators something to do. For all of the shoulds in crisis communications, the reality is that reality matters. Bad news is bad news, and PR maneuvering can do little to change it.

The coverage will change only when the event and its implications have been explored, and it’ll reflect what Boeing does, not what it says (or how it says it). If it’s proven that it failed to communicate the software glitch or its fix to pilots, there could be some real and deserved longterm impacts.

Stock price reflects those actions as they’re revealed; sure, sharing them proactively might yield a better tone in coverage — versus actions being exposed — but equity analysts aren’t going to bet one penny on the media’s POV (unless they’re valuing the influence it’ll have on other investors at some short-term meta level).

Stories about a plane crash or delay in delivering a fix will depress the stock price, and stories about recovery will inflate it. Stock price is a derivative measure, so the most important thing communicators can do is get the most information out as quickly and often as possible, and then step back and let the market react.

It’s kinda simple.

So will the 737 Max crisis damage Boeing’s reputation?

Instead of looking at media articles, I’d keep an eye on ways it might impact customer, vendor, and other stakeholders’ business with the company. For instance:

Will its airline customers require more expensive guarantees of product performance, perhaps extended to other airplane models? Will Boeing have to conduct more regular, and therefore more expensive maintenance services to guarantee safety?

How much more will it cost to get customers to buy a hardware or software update? Could future recruits be harder to sign, or cost more, because they’re concerned about the values of the company? What about would-be partners?

Would lenders want to be paid a higher interest rate because of concerns about future crashes? What about insurance costs, or regulatory intrusions and/or fines?

Unfortunately, too few executive teams see these metrics as indicators of reputational value, and they exist utterly beyond the perspective of corporate communicators. It’s why companies that have great media coverage can surprise the world with some horrible shortcoming, or companies that don’t get talked about amaze us with the revelation of some heretofore unknown strength.

Everything else is just blather.

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