Opinion: Ryanair might have to start singing to a different PR tune

Opinion: Ryanair might have to start singing to a different PR tune

Having been forced to issue a profits warning, the Irish budget carrier could regret taking a Millwall FC-like approach to its image, says Steve Dunne

While watching a repeat of a TV documentary on Ryanair the other day I found myself reacting to a comment by the airline’s chief executive Michael O’Leary. 

Now that in itself is not an unusual thing – Michael O’Leary is famous for getting people to react to what he says.

But the comment that triggered my chain of thought was a very simple statement. O’Leary was asked by the interviewer if his management meetings were as brutal as rumour had it.

'Did people cry?' he was asked. 'Were senior managers reduced to gibbering wrecks?' “Well, we don’t sit around the table holding hands while singing the company song,” replied O’Leary

This got me thinking. What would be Ryanair’s corporate song if Michael O’Leary were leading the singing?

The answer hit me in a flash.

Ever since the seventies the infamous fans of Millwall Football Club have, to the Rod Stewart tune of (We Are) Sailing, chanted from the terraces “No one likes us and we don’t care”

Admit it - you could see O’Leary bellowing it out at the top of his voice in a management meeting couldn’t you?

The phenomenon that is Ryanair is well documented. 

But the thing that most strikes me about one of the world’s most successful airlines is that by most public relations (PR) standards the airline’s profile has been built on a strategy of antagonistic and controversial tactics to enhance its image.

Scant regard, it seems, has been paid to building a good reputation in the eyes of the public.  

Now, I have to make a confession at this point. I have always had a sneaky and begrudging respect for Michael O’Leary. In PR terms he breaks every rule in the book and yet Ryanair’s profile flourishes.

When he was recruiting for a new head of PR last year he actually advertised it as the toughest job in PR.

Who can forget how, upon being unexpectedly “door stepped” by the BBC Panorama reporter Vivian White, O’Leary gave a master class on live TV of how to turn an aggressive and negative interview into an outrageous marketing plug.

BBC Watchdog’s Anne Robinson and Nicky Campbell, clever and aggressive interviewers, have failed consistently to out-manoeuvre the master of spin.   

But now the cold winds of the commercial world are blowing through the Ryanair camp.

A profit warning to the City last week and a recent damaging Channel 4 Dispatches programme making serious allegations about safety procedures (hotly diputed by the airline which started a legal challenge) might have changed the game for O’Leary and Ryanair.

For while Michael O’Leary has defied the laws of PR with his past strategy and tactics, there will come a day when the reputation of Ryanair is brought into sharp focus.

And without a bank of good will behind the brand, Ryanair could quickly be in dire straits.

For PR is not about image (as many think). PR is about reputation; the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

And as every PR professional knows, a good reputation gives your brand a second chance when things go horribly wrong.

Reputation takes years to build; consolidated and shored up constantly by good public perception, reinforced by advocates of the brand.

So, while I very much enjoy, and even secretly admire, the PR antics of Michael O’Leary and Ryanair, my advice to any travel, aviation or hospitality brand is to concentrate on your reputation and not your image.

For when the proverbial hits the fan – as it inevitably will from time to time – a powerful reputation and an army of advocates will help you through and the attitude “No one likes us and we don’t care” will suddenly feel like a chilling liability.

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