There’s an iconic Abbott and Costello bit called “Who’s on First?” (appropriate, now that it’s baseball season) that reminds me of what’s going on with Boeing, which is no laughing matter. Given the precision of technical aptitude and communication required to put together something as complex as a modern aircraft, the complete ineptitude of Boeing’s handling of the 737 Max crisis should have us all asking if anyone at Boeing knows, “Who’s on first?”
The Abbot and Costello sketch is a funny example of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and lack of information. In sharp contrast, transporting human beings is deadly serious business.
It is yet to be determined whether Boeing intentionally mislead customers or if its chain of communication was so poor that important information never reached its intended audiences. In the court of public opinion, no one cares. What people know is that Boeing screwed up, and when you’re 35,000 feet in the air, you don’t want to be on a plane built by a company known for screwing up or covering up.
There are many lessons to be learned from what’s happening at Boeing on a variety of fronts, but one of the most basic is communications. If Boeing had better internal communications, perhaps some or all of this disaster could have been avoided.
Critics are accurately describing what’s happening at Boeing as a public relations disaster. What preceded it is an overall internal communications disaster. As communicators, all too often, we focus on what happens in external communications, because it’s the most visible and potentially embarrassing channel. However, most external communications problems are the result of poor internal communications.
Does Boeing have a “public” relations nightmare on its hands? Absolutely. But the bigger disaster is the breakdown of internal communications that created the situation in the first place.
In the Abbott and Costello bit, communication breaks down due to a lack of clarity. Boeing and all companies should take a hard look at their chain of communications to make sure everybody knows who’s on first. If you do that, you’ve got a better chance at a home run, or at least reducing the number of times you strike out when it comes to your reputation.