Ahead of two days of congressional testimony from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing has taken out full-page ads in several newspapers. It’s among the first steps the airline manufacturer has taken to regain the public’s trust after its jet, the Boeing 737 Max 8, crashed twice within the year, killing 346 people and leading to the longest grounding in the history of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The ads, which ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, USAToday, The Seattle Times and The Chicago Tribune, pay tribute to Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610, which crashed in March 2019 and exactly a year ago today, respectively.
But what’s missing from the copy: an actual apology.
“We mourn those whose lives were lost on Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and offer our deepest sympathies to their families and friends. We will always remember,” the ad reads. At the bottom of the ad, it said: “From all of us at Boeing.”
Crisis communications experts say the ad rings hollow, hinting that this is a PR stunt aimed at “elites”—financial, political and societal—and not the people affected by the crashes.
“It doesn’t sit well with me. This is anything but an apology,” said Brett Snyder, an aviation expert. “It’s unlikely that any of the friends or families of the victims care about The Wall Street Journal. And if they do read it, they don’t care that Boeing took out an ad.”
Of course, the avoidance of apology could just be a corporate strategy. Words and framing matter, experts say.
“An apology is legally admissible in court as negligence,” said Eric Denzenhall, a crisis communications expert. “This was a good idea. It was not grandstanding. It was not self-congratulatory. It deprives those who have said otherwise of the opportunity to say the company doesn’t care.”
The Wall Street Journal’s rate sheet shows a full-page ad on A5 costs $277,200. A full-page ad on page 5 of The Financial Times is $210,025, according to the paper’s rate card. It’s roughly $80,000 for a full-page ad in The Washington Post and $75,000-$150,000 for a full-page ad in The New York Times, depending on the category, client and day of the week, said sources familiar with those papers’ advertising rates.
Full-page ads in just those newspapers represent more than $600,000 for one day of advertising, to a very specific audience.
In a statement to Adweek, Boeing said the ads “reflect our deep regret for the loss of life in both accidents. We’ll always remember those who lost their lives, and we want to reassure airlines, their crews and the public that, with the work we’ve done, the Max will be among the safest airplanes ever to fly. They also help share information on our current progress and will direct audiences to an expanded set of information online.”
Initiative, Boeing’s media-buying agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
“This [message] isn’t targeted at families; it’s targeted at the people who buy airplanes or working for the airlines,” said Snyder.
It’s “investors and elites,” according to Denzenhall. “To sit and try to educate millions of consumers about safety is a fool’s errand. All it would do is scare the heck out of them. The best way to manage a crisis well is to speak to key audiences. It’s not consumers. It’s an elite audience of opinion leaders and investors.”
Boeing also ran a two-page statement from Muilenburg in Indonesian newspapers, in English on one side and Indonesian on the other.
“On behalf of the men and women of Boeing, we are deeply sorry and grieve for the loss of life. … Please accept our heartfelt condolences for the loss of the crew onboard Lion Air Flight 610 and our apologies for the disruption this tragedy has caused,” the statement read.
Muilenburg, who was stripped of his chairman title earlier this month, appeared before a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee earlier today.
In his opening statements, Muilenburg used the stage to apologize on behalf of Boeing.
“I wanted to let you know, on behalf of myself and all of the men and women of Boeing, how deeply sorry I am. As we observe today the solemn anniversary of the loss of Lion Air Flight 610, please know that we carry the memory of these accidents, and of your loved ones, with us every day,” said Muilenburg.
The hearing focused primarily on the relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, both guilty of rushing the plane through certification according to a multiagency task force created by the FAA and international regulators. It is believed that a faulty sensor forced the jet’s nose downward without the pilot’s input.
Although he did not detail what Boeing would do to repair its business relationships and consumer trust, Muilenburg did mention the Max 8’s grounding’s effects on the airlines that fly the Max 8, most notably United Airlines, Southwest and American Airlines.
“We know the grounding of the Max is hurting our airline customers, their pilots and flight attendants, and most importantly, the people who fly on our airplanes. Our airline customers and their pilots have told us they don’t believe we communicated enough about MCAS—and we’ve heard them,” said Muilenberg. “We have welcomed and encouraged their questions and given them opportunities to test those solutions firsthand in simulators.”
When asked by Sen. Moran (R-Kan.) how far along the Max 8 was in the process of returning, Muilenberg said, “we’re in the final stages of the process. We’re currently testing the final software updates. … When ready and with the FAA’s approval we will proceed to a certification flight. The airplane will return to service when it’s safe. This is not going to be timeline driven.”
Boeing would not comment on its media strategy, if future ads were planned and if the ad was an apology.
Tomorrow, Muilenburg is scheduled to speak before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.