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How Boeing and Facebook could have avoided PR nightmares

Ameya Pendse

Whether it’s Facebook (FB) data privacy scandals or Boeing (BA) 737 MAX troubles, a crisis is bound to hit any company eventually.

And according to Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), the crucial aspect about dealing with the PR nightmares companies face is managing them as quickly as possible.

“One of the first things you look to with a company is [whether] they able to curtail the duration of a crisis or not,” McNulty, co-author of “You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, told YFi AM (video above).” “If you handle it effectively right away, boom, the story goes away and you’re not talking about it anymore. When it plays out week after week? It’s not a good thing.”

Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg pauses during a press conference after the annual shareholders meeting at the Field Museum on April 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Jim Young-Pool/Getty Images)

The first thing to do is say something’

Any crisis management starts immediately.

“The first mistake companies make is to say nothing, or no comment,” McNulty says. “Because then you create a void that’s going to be filled by someone. Probably one of your critics or someone else who’s trying to make the story go forward.”

In the aftermath of two crashes involving Boeing’s 737 Max aircrafts, CEO Dennis Muilenburg's most visible action was a reported call to President Trump to vouch for the plane's safety.

“Boeing is going to tell you safety’s first. Well? It doesn’t look that way,” McNulty said. “And the longer the story plays out, the more we find out about the other aircraft, what the manufacturing looks like — maybe not so much. It’s speed to market, it’s making sure we make profit — those are all important, but not when people’s lives are at risk.”

McNulty recommended Boeing should have taken immediate responsibility and offered empathy towards those affected by the two crashes.

“The first thing to do is say something. And then the empathy with these people is the first big thing to do,” McNulty said. “So you at least can come out and say, ‘We’re aware of the situation. We have dedicated resources to take care of it. We are cooperating with authorities.’ If you say that much, that’s what gets covered and you’ve now said you’re a part of it, you’re doing the right thing and off it goes.”

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Facebook as ‘been stonewalling it for a long time’

When it comes to Facebook, McNulty said the potential for crisis should have been predictable. The damage from their clumsy responses is totally self-inflicted.

“You look at somebody like Facebook and say, ‘This privacy debate that’s going on, are they seeing where this is going to shift or not?,’” McNulty said. “They’ve been stonewalling it for a long time, but I feel like the momentum is changing. So understanding how the narrative is unfolding and where you’re on top of it, or maybe where you’re not.”

McNulty added that when leadership fails at the highest level, onus lies on those who are a part of the company — specifically the corporate card.

“It’s the board that should be holding them accountable, their investors should be holding them accountable,” he said. “But increasingly you see people who are willingly to let things slide, which is not good. And do I do think you look to that individual, that CEO, that senior executive, to see will they pull it forward.”

Moving forward, McNulty believes there will be more more accountability of corporate boards in order to protect the company.

“I do think there’s going to be increasing pressure on boards to look at this and deal with this… because their fiduciary duty is to the shareholders,” McNulty said. “And so when you get a major crisis, it costs a lot of money. And chances are the money could be put to better use in better places.”


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