How a little boy’s tears made Boeing human

28 Aug

Harry Winsor's Boeing design

Eight-year old Harry Winsor is a little boy who loves planes.

So when he set about designing Boeing’s next passenger jet, crayon in hand, he dreamed of seeing his machine soaring through the clouds.

What he didn’t expect was the curmudgeonly response when he mailed the firm his sketch: a standardised rejection letter penned in legalese, which informed him: “…we have disposed of your message and retained no copies.”

Way to go Boeing. Way to make an eight-year-old cry. Way to become the subject of a force 10 social media shit storm.

You see, as luck would have it (bad luck for the tin-eared jumbo manufacturer), Harry’s dad, John, was a veteran marketer. Mr Winsor blogged about the letter and soon the story was being tweeted and re-tweeted and re-re-tweeted around the world.

Kerboom! PR disaster! Screw-up of the century! Get out of that one Boeing.

Well, they didn’t just get out of it. Within days, they had one of corporate America’s social media success stories of the century on their hands.

How? Enter the human.

Enter Todd Blecher, Boeing’s communications director, who phoned Harry to apologise and to invite the young aviation enthusiast on a tour of a plane. He then apologised to the world on Twitter, saying “We’re expert at airplanes but novices in social media. We’re learning as we go.”

The company also said it would rethink how it deals with letters from children. Back in Twittersville, the mood lightened, we realised this was just a case of some humans making human mistakes.

Harry’s dad blogged later: “Today, the best brands find ways to act more human. And Todd made Boeing more human. He’s added value to the Boeing brand and showed that the company is willing to engage with consumers in a new way. His actions and attitude are the future of Boeing communications.”

The tale of the little boy who humanised one of the world’s biggest corporations in May of this year is now well-told and the ending always details the huge amount of credit Boeing has been getting the world over for its actions that day. What is not well-known is that Blecher had already realised the old ways of corporate communications were no longer working in the new world of social media. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for to begin a revolution in his own company.

A few months before, Boeing’s website content was, well, boring. Its tentative attempts to distribute that dull content through Twitter and Facebook hadn’t worked. Its stories were about products, not people. Blecher realised the communications goal shouldn’t be to sell planes but to enhance its reputation so that big businesses – United Airlines, Emirates etc – would want to do business with Boeing. He realised that reputation had to be rooted in the talent of its people, the employees who pushed back the boundaries in aviation, who put the airplanes in the skies. In the marketing man’s words: “Boeing is just a name on a bunch of buildings – the essence of our organisation is its people.”

So he put Boeing’s people front and centre on the website – every week three new stories about the employees and their work. Web visits soared like Boeing’s jets and Blecher told a conference in May that the average time people spent at the site had shot from one minute to seven.

The greatest thing about social media is that we finally all have the chance to have real interactions and conversations with real human beings. It’s how blogging works and why CEOs who have their blogs ghost-written do not communicate authentically.

It’s why another great communicator, Dell, encourages its employees to tweet on behalf of the company under their own names. Dell wants us to know its people are all different and all have their own personalities. And there’s little risk to the ‘corporate message’ because they all embody the brand of the company.

Social media is more than another channel for corporate communications. Companies must now realise that they don’t only have one voice. Yes, they have one brand spirit, one shared purpose, one history, one story and one set of principles – but their people are different and have different personalities. They are human…and that’s what consumers and little boys who love planes want in 2010.

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