Categories: CSR reality check / Trust and reputations

18 October 2009


Why hate Ryanair’s PR? (Part 2)

As a reputation strategist, I find Ryanair fascinating. Judging by the response to my first post here and on Linked-in’s PR Group discussion pages, I’m not alone. 

First off, Steve Hartman of Creativille, Inc., explained how his Harvard Executive Education course discussed Rynair as a case study in branding success. Toni Falconi Muzi wrote to say that when senior public officials in Italy were asked, “which organisation, in your view, is more aware of and uses with most intelligence the power of conscious public relationships”, Ryanair came out in the first three choices.

David Brain commented that it’s difficult to argue with success, but wondered how many lost slots, delays and loss of partners were caused by people disliking Michael O’Leary’s approach. Then Heather Yaxley posted an incisive comment (see both here). I’m now answering their points:

(1) Ryanair does care about its customers and reputation, up to a point Lord Copper. The carrier cares to get the customers’ business (good routes, good fares). It cares and needs to get the customers’ repeat business: Ryanair stresses repeatedly its relative reliability (a feature you need in order to lure people on a second time).

(2) Ryanair is playing several PR and brand-defining games. The airline invites its fans to be “in” on the secret of being a beneficiary of its service. It shares a complicity with its fans that they know how to game its offer. It invites its fans to relish the way namby-pambies aren’t up to gaming or enjoying Ryanair’s offer.

Ryanair has indulged its customers’ instinctive contempt for a class of passenger weened on a level of schmooze most people could never afford. It’s a bit like The Sun implying that the broadsheet readers are snobbish about The Sun because they don’t get the joke.

Ryanair does not offer a PR presence to produce a virtual brand. That is, it is not manufacturing a corporate image as an umbrella that’s not directly linked to the service the airline provides.

Hence, Heather Yaxley is correct: Ryanair’s brand is a marketing machine and performance is the brand promise.

I would add that the value of any particular brand is measured by the extent to which the promise it symbolizes is trusted. And in Ryanair’s case, a certain level of distrust, or a health warning, comes as part of the bargain.

Ryanair understands that the key to brand management lies in setting realistic expectations and in being consistent (that’s a text book strategy, well executed).

Michael O’Leary’s PR strategy, and we should note here how PR is his trump card, is to shoot the opponents’ fox. “Customer: ‘You’re brutal’. Ryanair: ‘We’ve always said as much!’”.

Meanwhile, the more BA and the other airlines struggle to play a higher moral game (call it with-frills and added values) the more they set themselves up to be exposed as untrustworthy.

(3) It isn’t obvious that Ryanair has a bad complaints policy merely because it makes people go to the trouble of faxing or mailing a letter. Point being, Ryanair gets to hear about those complaints from customers who go to some bother to make them. Of course, Ryanair may be awful in its response to complaints, though I imagine there’s some regulation surrounding just how awful it can be.

(4) It is unclear to me the degree to which Ryanair can afford to be casual because it has a monopoly on some routes. That is, I don’t know if Ryanair has a monopoly, or how that would play if it had (perhaps somebody with more knowledge of the airline business could answer this point).

(5) It is not my impression that Ryanair is any worse than any other airline, or even that it is necessarily the cheapest. My impression is that its behaviour is quite similar to that of other similar airlines in its class, but that it has an aggressive, loud-mouthed boss and great PR. If he was less loud, and left less rows and havoc in his wake, would Ryanair’s behaviour – even the Ryanair effect – be all that different?

So when I make point (2) (that its pre-emptive PR keeps the firm safe) I may be overstating things. It is possible and likable that Ryanair’s PR is as it is because that is how the boss likes it.

In short, perhaps we have to like Ryanair’s PR because it is authentic.

6 responses to “Why hate Ryanair’s PR? (Part 2)”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    I agree that Ryanair is a fascinating organisation from a reputational perspective.

    I do not agree that it particularly cares about customers – the routes generally aren’t “good” so much as convenient for Ryanair in terms of airports that give it a good deal. If the airports play hardball over charges, Ryanair will take the business elsewhere. Hence it focuses mainly on local airports where the trade it brings is much welcome. I’m also not convinced that repeat business is really sought after. I’ve flown with Ryanair a lot over the last couple of years – but unlike other airlines, you never get emails or any attempt to build your loyalty.

    The reliability claim is another smoke and mirrors tactic in my opinion. The flight times are always excessive and always met – no matter how late you take off or whatever the weather en route, you seem to arrive 5 minutes early. And then have to endure the irritating trumpet sound they use to reinforce that it is “another early Ryanair flight”.

    Agreed, they play the namby-pambies in terms of the additional fees – but it is a gamble that the fans or those who put up with the game will outnumber those who won’t choose Ryanair if something even marginally better is available.

    In terms of class that is quite interesting as I always think when you choose to fly Ryanair you all become chav-like. You really should check it out yourself and see. It is “classless” in a downmarket way – despite the fact that in reality, most people on the flights aren’t really chavs.

    There is no need for a fancy corporate brand – and to an extent, what you see is what you get. But the extent to which you trust Ryanair is debatable. Do I trust the planes not to fall out of the sky? Yes – but I don’t trust that the routes I take will be there even short-term, that the planes will fly (and if they don’t I’m pretty much on my own to sort out alternative arrangements), or that there won’t be more and more charges…

    At present the sums add up in favour of customers and Ryanair – so no need to spend money on fancy advertising (although there has been more mainstream tactics this year eg hoardings) or anything other than press agentry PR.

    But I still maintain, it will be a big crisis that calls the PR into question – and the number of key stakeholders who don’t like the company will eventually be a major problem. But the game continues until then.

    The BBC though should stop being a willing participant – did you see that Ryanair has offered 10,000 free flights for every inaccuracy it claims were in the Panorama show – it makes that 11 – so 1.1 million free flights announced for November and December.

  2. david brain says:

    You have hit a nerve here obviously as so many are interested in a company that is successful by breaking so many ofr hallowed rules. A bit like Aplle who “get everything right by doing everything wrong” as I think Wired said. I agree though that the acid test of this approach will be their first crisis (assuming they are unlucky enough to have one). In that case, I wonder if Michael could do as good a job as Michael Bishop did when BMI crashed many years ago. I suspect he would indeed rise to the ocassion.

  3. Simon Jones says:

    I actually *shudder* flew Ryanair recently and it was NOT AS BAD as I feared. The plane was quite new and the flight was bearable notwithstanding the nannying notices everywhere (they are clearly used to people pulling all kinds of chav tricks like booking a second seat for their bag, as this is cheaper than the baggage hold).

    I had good earplugs, a seat as far forward as I could manage, and I’d brought my own refreshments on board.

    It was still the only time I’d been aboard a European flight when someone’s brought their bagged McDonalds takeaway on board though. Said person was later spotted trying to open the plane window to give the remains the tradtional Ronald McD heave-ho.

  4. Peter Walker says:

    What is it about public relatiosn that it seems to have become confused with political correctness. OK so the US press agents that some academics seem to refever as fathers of public relations fadvised JP Morgan and others went on a give money to charity, be nice to the media jag to soften the ‘image’ of their labour exploitative, monopolist manipulator clients. It doesn’t mean that they set the pattern for public relations strategies for larger than life big business owners and managers.

    Ryan Ait/Michael Ryan’s public relations strategy is text book – it really does define the business and set out to create mutuall understanding. Can anyone be in any doubt about the underlying objectives of the business, its relations with customers, expecations of staff, view of regulators. But let’s not kid ourselves no one is any doubt that he really does care about the business and its service to customes or passngers.

    The Baggage handling system breaks down at Stanstead, passengers delayed, fraught and planes delayed and who flies in jumps on the top pf the luggage pile and shakes the airport to the core.. Michael Ryan.

    Lets stop confusing being nice and dland and peranently reasonable with good public relations. Try flying on an airline that spends 12 minutes of its inflight messaging telleing you that they are India’s only five start airline, that food is their passion and drink is their business and then find out that there is no way on their website that you can preorder your meal preference and then when it comes to your meal there is only one meal – a vegetarian curry left. I had 3 banana’s and a bowl of cereal as my in-flight meal and an apple and a bread role before we landed as ‘breakfast’ . I had a similar but different problem with food choices on the return trip. Of course the flight staff were wonderfully soothing but they couldn’t do anything. No dice you made a promise you didn’t deliver and your system didn’t even enable you to send me a letter of apology when I got home.

    This is an airline whose public relations is apparently ‘great’ – they are just so nice to the media, customers and their staff. The problem is they have made a promise they can’t or won’t deliver on.

    Good public relations …it is all yours Michael – we all know what we will get and that includes shareholders.


  5. Sean Boyle says:

    An airline that is hated by its customers; is hated by its own staff; and has a thoroughly obnoxious little gobshite at the controls. That’s the true wonder of Ryanair’s success.

  6. Roman of AirObserver says:

    Ryanair PR strategy is good and efficient because they only care about one thing, and deliver one single message: we are cheap. So, there is no “bad advertising” for them until they can convince passengers that it’s made in order to lower their fares.
    That’s why I think O’Leary could take all the risk and proposes the most absurd tax, It’ll end up ok for him.
    I just published an article about O’Leary PR Stunt: