The trust is in the detail

The trust is in the detail

In large organisations, many eyes will usually have passed across a particular statement before its formal release.

This is particularly the case when the information is sensitive or destined to be under public scrutiny. On the way to its release, various managers may accept, edit or ignore recommendations from communication and media teams about the statement. Their ability to do so is likely linked to their job title, position in the chain of command and ultimate responsibility for — and within — the organisation.

Think of a communication sign off process as a production line, if you will.

In my experience, that line is not always linear. I’ve seen it curve, double back on itself and even resemble spaghetti. I was once asked by a manager ‘where we were at’ with a particular piece of communication. I replied that we were up to version eleven.

In truth, I’d ceased to care somewhere around version seven, because I’d understood that either nobody knew what they wanted to say or it would be so ‘subject to change’ that, once published, it would be retracted anyway. In any case, it never went out, and I never received an answer as to why.

It’s an example I’ve often quoted when talking about less-functional management teams and the impact they can have on communication — particularly teams that don’t involve communication experts at the beginning of a process.

Article Image (top) : Templehof 3.0 © Geoff Jaeger — Berlin, 2010

Templehof 3.1 © Geoff Jaeger — Berlin, 2010

Failing to engage communication experts at appropriate times can lead to ‘postbox comms’.

I referred to this in my previous article, which you can read here. That said, the ‘buck’ should never stop with the communications team. Someone else gets paid to say yay or nay as to what does — and does not — get published.

Some statements, however, have to go out immediately — often produced under intense pressure. Statements about airline safety are a particular case in point. I worked closely with Qantas safety managers for many years. Part of their role was to ensure the implementation of policies on behalf of Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

I recently read a statement from Boeing about the 737 Max via BBC News.

I imagine it passed by many eyes, including their corporate communications and media teams, to eventually be signed off by the highest levels of management under great pressure.

It’s important to note here, I make no assumptions about — or critique of — Boeing’s internal processes. My comments are strictly based on a single line of communication, reproduced and bolded below. It’s an extract from a BBC News article published on 14 March 2019:

Boeing, the US plane manufacturer, said that it ” continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max“. However, it added that after consultation with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board it had decided to ground the flights “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety”. Read the full article

BBC News has since revealed:

Flight data from the Ethiopian Airlines disaster a week ago suggest[s] “clear similarities” with a crash off Indonesia last October, Ethiopia’s transport minister has said. Read the full article

The week following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the U.K’s Independent published an article online claiming:

Pilots on at least two US flights reported autopilot systems in use on the 737 MAX 8 seemed to cause their planes to tilt downwards and lose altitude suddenly. Read the full article

Consider then, what ‘full confidence’ might mean in Boeing’s reported statement on 14 March.

I struggle to understand how a business could have full confidence in the safety of a machine associated with the death of 346 people in less than six months.

Templehof 3.2 © Geoff Jaeger — Berlin, 2010

Boeing is clearly a smart organisation. I’ve flown on close to one hundred Boeing aircraft, and will continue to fly on them. I’ve no doubt they, along with various regulatory safety authorities, will analyse, understand and solve any issue associated with the 737 Max aircraft.

Paramount in situations like these however, is the need for clear communication

(1) What happened.

(2) What we’re doing.

(3) What this means.

It’s a ‘three-punch’ communications solution.

It spells out what’s going on, while taking full responsibility for the situation. This is the type of leadership messaging that gives people full confidence.

Excluding any obvious emotional response to these disasters, here’s my three-punch straw man for this particular case:There appears to be an issue associated with the 737 Max.

(1) There appears to be an issue with the 737 Max.

(2) We’re working to understand and resolve this issue, to determine whether it’s related to our hardware, software or if human factors are involved.

(3) Until then, we’re grounding the fleet.

According to an article published by Australian Business Insider on 19 March:

The jets remain grounded as Boeing works on a software update for the 737 Max control system that will hopefully fix the issues experienced by pilots. Read the full article

Here’s a link from the from the front page of Boeing’s website where you’ll find a Letter from Dennis Muilenburg — Chairman, President and CEO — to airlines, passengers and the aviation community.

The letter states:

…we’re taking actions to fully ensure the safety of the 737 MAX.

It refers to:

…efforts to support the most recent investigation, understand the facts of what happened and help prevent future tragedies.

And concludes:

Together, we’ll keep working to earn and keep the trust people have placed in Boeing.

Compelled to write this article — although many times unsure whether to do so — I think the issue I’m driven to highlight here is to what should the “full confidence” of the reported statement on 14 March have been addressed?

For me, it’s full confidence in the company’s record, not the aircraft’s safety — leaving any associated procedures aside. A niggling detail maybe, but for me at least, it can be the difference between having — or not having — trust in an organisation.