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Is internal comms supporting an overhaul at Boeing

Troubled aeroplane manufacturer Boeing is facing a new enquiry from US regulators after admitting that its employees may not have properly inspected its 787 Dreamliner planes. 

The issue is the latest in a long line of safety troubles for Boeing. In January a door of an Alaskan Airlines plane it manufactured flew off in mid-air. In 2019, 157 people died when an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed, just months after 189 passengers had died in a Lion Air crash.

Its long-running reputational crisis has been deeply embarrassing. In early 2020, leaked staff emails described its 737 Max planes as “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys”, and other employees stated that they would not allow their own families to fly on the plane.

The wholesale culture change required was evident, with investigations into the crashes of 2018 and 2019 finding that employees failed to demonstrate knowledge of its safety culture efforts; and hesitated to report safety concerns “for fear of retaliation” from management with conflicts of interest.

Though the company’s public responses were for a long time widely criticised, the root of the crisis itself was caused by technical issues, embedded in poor corporate governance. Complaints from whistleblowers and industry experts about substandard practices, safety concerns and a relentless focus on profits demonstrated that the company culture had strayed a long way from its safety-focused values.

Failure to maintain best-practice governance – which is an essential means of reducing the risk of poor decision-making and preventing mistakes - can have disastrous reputational impacts.

And when a company is overhauling its governance and its culture, as Boeing has been forced to, internal communications plays a vital role.

It appears that Boeing has made significant efforts to turn the corner in recent times. From an HR policy perspective, it recently announced changes to its bonus structure, with safety and quality metrics now accounting for 60% of payouts, up from 25% previously. It has also been encouraging staff to speak out when they see problems, claiming it has seen such reports increase by more than 500% since January.

When a company makes pains to overhaul its governance and put transparency and accountability at its heart, reinforcing these concepts through effective employee communications is essential to ensure teams are aware and truly understand how important these principles are to their employer. There are many ways in which companies can underline these efforts, from breaking down policies into clear, easily digestible materials; to showcasing and rewarding positive examples; or putting a heavy and repeated emphasis on safety messages in communications from company leaders.

In contrast to its much-derided responses in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes, Boeing has focused heavily on internal communications as it attempts to restore trust and rebuild its reputation. Leaked internal memos have demonstrated that it is now communicating with staff about the importance of compliance, working with them to ensure procedures are fully understood, and empowering them to report potential safety hazards.

Though the latest reports of possible falsification of records suggest this is still very much work in progress, it is clear that the company sees the value in driving cultural change from the inside-out, using internal communications as a key lever to do so. That has to be a positive step.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Ian Morris, director, communications, SEC Newgate UK.

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