Why Boeing’s Dreamliner needs PR storytelling to sell its safety

by Paul Furiga, on Apr 30, 2013

Around the world, airlines will soon begin flying Boeing 787 Dreamliners after months of engineering work to figure out why batteries on some of the planes caught fire.

As The New York Times pointed out in an article yesterday, this is only a start. While Boeing and the airlines that fly the sophisticated 787 believe they have eliminated the battery fire problem, no one is 100 percent certain what caused the batteries to catch fire in the first place.

Boeing needs storytelling. Here's why.In the Times story, this uneasy uncertainty is playing out in ways that numbers and statistics can’t entirely solve.  For All Nippon Airlines, one of two Japanese carriers who had a battery fire, reporter Hiroko Tabuchi notes that public concern is being addressed in part by “a dedicated website on which it will post painstakingly detailed information complete with intricate charts and diagrams on the fixes being made to each aircraft.”

Yet this is hardly enough. To make sense of why they should once again be willing to fly on a 787, the public needs context and meaning to go with the facts and figures. The public needs a story. Tabuchi relates a sequence that validates this need for a story from the press conference following All Nippon’s first test flight after the battery fix:

“Asked at a press conference attended by about 70 reporters how he might convince his passengers the plane is safe, the pilot of the test flight, Yuichi Marui, rattled off platitudes suspiciously similar to those already voiced by All Nippon’s chief executive.

‘That’s no good,’ a reporter retorted. ‘Tell it like you would tell a little child.’

‘Uh, let’s see — well, we’ve fixed all the bad parts now,’ Mr. Marui offered. ‘What I mean is, the plane is very safe.’ ”

“Tell it like you would tell a little child,” or in other words, share an easily understood story that has context and meaning for the flying public.

A focus on compelling stories, well told, has been our focus at WordWrite since we began more than a decade ago. The Boeing 787 saga is the latest and best example of why a focus on stories is vitally important in 21st century public relations. It gives me the opportunity to reiterate our philosophy on public relations storytelling.

Even before primitive societies put chisel to stone and began writing, one group held a special place in these communities because of their communication skills: storytellers.

By weaving compelling narratives, storytellers preserved communal history, entertained their fellows, and delivered motivation when it was needed. Over time, their words moved armies and inspired achievement. The need for story is even more compelling in a crisis such as the grounding of an entire fleet of commercial airliners.

When I say "storytelling," I mean story with a capital "S." Small "s" storytelling is well understood by journalists and the professionals who work with them. I am talking about a bigger view of your story than what a journalist crams into a 500-word story.

Think instead of great films, plays or books. In these larger works, a "story" unfolds. Key components are essential to a successful story: characters, including a hero (and maybe a villain), a plot, at least one climax, and yes, a happy ending.

Successful PR storytelling relies upon similar key elements. A great PR story answers these vital questions:

• Who is the audience?

• What do we want the audience to do or feel?

• Who are the key characters in the story?

• What is the plot or plot lines for the story?

• What is the story's climax or key success point?

• What is our happy ending?

For example, a new product that creates a new product category may need a first chapter that focuses on the issue or problem that the product solves. Only after key audiences understand the issue can the storyteller introduce the new, revolutionary solution. And only after the solution is properly introduced can its story be told in detail.

In public relations, storytelling is not only about a good script, but also, good execution.

Like performers on a stage, interacting with the audience, PR storytelling is dynamic, involving two-way communication. Good PR storytellers adapt the story for each audience. They tailor staging, scenery, even the actors, to deliver success.

Like a good book, successful PR storytelling may have many chapters. And while it may incorporate unforeseen drama or plot twists, as with the crisis communications involving the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, that doesn't mean there isn't a happy ending.

This is the most important measure of PR storytelling: An organization has a goal — a happy ending. In this case, the happy ending for Boeing, All Nippon and the other carriers who fly the Dreamliner is not only a safe return to service, but a flying public that loves the airplane and is excited to fly it.

Achieving this kind of happy ending is hardly child’s play. However, it should be something that as the New York Times story points out, even a small child can understand.

What do you think? Can Boeing and the airlines that fly its 787 Dreamliner make their case with facts, figures and statistics? Or must there be a compelling story to go with the end of this chapter in the plane’s history? Share your thoughts in the comments section and please share this post with others who may have an opinion.

Topics:storypublic relationsstorytellingbusiness storypr strategy
Paul Furiga-wordwrite-headshot
Paul Furiga
President and Chief Storyteller

Paul Furiga is President and Chief Storyteller at WordWrite. Follow him on Twitter at @paulfuriga. 

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