Boeing 737 Max crash crisis management
Boeing 737 MAX 8 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of a major disaster, words matter. And for Boeing to say it grounded the troubled 737 Max 8 aircraft in “an abundance of caution” was a particularly unhelpful choice of words.

Within just five months, two of the new aircraft crashed minutes after take-off — in Indonesia and Ethiopia — killing a total of 346 passengers and crew.

Four days after the second crash — when more than 40 countries around the world had already banned the aircraft and Boeing shares lost a reported $35 billion in value — US authorities finally decided to ground the Max 8 and Max 9 models. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company supported this step “out of an abundance of caution”.

But respected writer John Beveridge argues that decision was several days too late. “As for acting out of ‘abundant caution’ in grounding the planes,” he writes, “the time for that was after the first crash, not the second, and certainly not after most other regulators had already acted.”

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This silly phrase seemed to gain favour in 2009 when White House senior counsel Greg Craig explained that, following a technical mistake, newly-inaugurated president Obama would retake his oath of office in an abundance of caution. Unfortunately it has now taken root in issue and crisis management as yet another example of shallow corporate jargon.

Following any crisis, words really matter. Think of airline owner Tony Fernandez after AirAsia flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea: “I am the leader of the company. I take responsibility. The passengers were on my aircraft and I have to take responsibility for that.”

Or think of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson when two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia outlet while waiting for a friend: “The way that incident escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible — and I’m sorry. I believe that blame has been misplaced. In fact, I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure that we address the policy and the practice and the training that led to this outcome.”

Or consider former Twitter boss Dick Costolo after a particularly egregious high-profile troll attack generated adverse publicity: “I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.”

No weasel words. No excuses. Just corporate and personal leadership.

The precise cause of the recent Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes may not be finally confirmed for months, likely followed by years of damaging law suits. So maybe “abundance of caution” was a phrase chosen to keep the lawyers happy.

Yet for a major aircraft manufacturer — where potential design failures must surely be right at the top of the list of obvious crisis risks — there should be a very clear and well-rehearsed crisis communication plan. And the right choice of words should be part of that plan.

Last year a Centrelink office in Adelaide went into lock-down after someone reportedly dumped a white powder on the floor in a public area. Emergency workers donned full protective gear before identifying that the mystery substance was in fact sugar. In that case, evacuating the building just might have been a legitimate use of the term “abundance of caution”.

Belatedly deciding to ground an aircraft after two terrible crashes was not.

This piece was originally published in Tony Jaques’ crisis-management newsletter Managing Outcomes.