Why Ryanair is not a PR disaster

At first glance it is easy to label the latest headlines for low-cost airline, Ryanair, as a PR disaster – but this analysis would be wrong on many counts.

Firstly, is this actually a disaster for Ryanair?  In terms of sales, having your £10 fares shown across the broadcast, online and tabloid media is free publicity.  Even BBC Breakfast this morning had two huge images of the offending advert in shot during its report of the story. 

Focusing on the sales impact is important as it reminds us that the issue relates to an advert – which was planned (not by any professional external agency as I recall of Ryanair’s strategy) to generate sales.  The resulting controversy was no accident, it was deliberately courted by Michael O’Leary and his team at Ryanair – it was placed in the Daily Mail for goodness sake.

Secondly, even if an advert does create unforeseen problems, can this be called a PR disaster – surely it is a management, marketing or advertising disaster?

Or do those using the term mean it is a disaster for the organisations’ public relations and reputation?  Well what about Ryanair’s reputation?  It positions itself as pugnacious; picking fights with the authorities wherever possible.  The response to the ASA is typical and laughable:

The ASA becomes more Monty Pythonesque by the day. It is remarkable that a picture of a fully-clothed model is now claimed to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’, when many of the UK’s leading daily newspapers regularly run pictures of topless or partially-dressed females without causing any serious or widespread offence.

“This isn’t advertising regulation, it is simply censorship. This bunch of unelected self-appointed dimwits are clearly incapable of fairly and impartially ruling on advertising.”

This campaign could be said to be a PR success then – it has generated enormous amounts of coverage (just imagine the output measures: Advertising Value Equivalent, Opportunities to See, talkability, etc etc).  And, it has built on the reputation that Ryanair has carefully crafted.  If PR’s job is to manage reputation – then it has met its objectives here.

What about PR’s role in relationships?  Clearly this campaign, like most of those undertaken by Ryanair, has not improved relationships with key influencers and stakeholders.  But the point is, that O’Leary doesn’t seem to care.  So these folk aren’t assessed as priority for developing relationships.

Provided the airline has bums on seats, staff who will work within its culture and shareholders happy with making profits, Ryanair is achieving its corporate objectives.  Yes, this is a short-term view, and when the airline needs friends, it will find them short on the ground.

The answer isn’t to generate lots of hot air around this trivial advert, but to ask why other airlines haven’t been able to better an airline that treats most of its publics with contempt, and relishes a nasty reputation.

We might not like Ryanair’s PR strategy.  It might not fulfil Grunig’s definition of “excellent”.  We can question why the airline’s public relations does not extend to any attempt at being responsible (beyond having a good safety record).  But ultimately, we have to judge the PR activities of Ryanair against the corporate aims.  Today, I bet Mr O’Leary and his PR/marketing gang are very happy with the results of their sad little advert.  This is not a PR disaster.


  1. Liz says:

    I haven’t seen the advert you mention but I am going to google for it. So no, not a PR disaster.

  2. Liz – thanks for the reminder that many people will be totally unaware of either Ryanair’s advert or the furore they have sought to manipulate.

  3. Liz – thanks for the reminder that many people will be unaware of either the advert or the furore that Ryanair has sought to create as a result.

  4. Judy Gombita says:

    Heather, I think this is part-and-parcel of that larger conversation we’ve been having (mainly over on PRC) on defining what constitutes public relations. From the way you’ve described the Ryanair culture and corporate strategy, offering inexpensive flights (where the customer has to pay for additional “services” and do a lot of legwork) and deliberately planning a cheeky advertising/marketing campaign is all part of the business strategy and game plan.

    I wonder whether anyone has researched whether in fact Ryanair has a robust public relations department and/or whether its CEO is willing to listen to senior-level PR counsel on reputation management. I suspect not. As you say, this ad is the result of “management, marketing or advertising” decisions, not PR.

    If the ad’s questionably clothed model somehow caused a low-fare plane to crash (the pilot looking at it during flight?!), hurting or killing passengers, that might constitute a “PR Disaster.” Otherwise, I just don’t see why this iteration would be any more offensive than ones by Hooters restaurant chain (not sure if that lovely slice of Americana has been imposed on your sensibilities). I don’t eat at Hooters; there are so many other reasonably priced restaurants to choose from that don’t have scantily clad females as servers, so I have no compelling reason to go to one. Likewise, I may not “appreciate” the Ryanair ad, but if I needed or wanted a cheap flight across the pond, it wouldn’t be off-putting enough to dissaude me (it’s just not that big enough deal). The recent Target ad (that caused the recent blogosphere eruption…OK, that one was about a blogger being *ignored*) leaves me with the same response.

    When it comes to the “big issues” that really do have to do with reputation management, what is Ryanair’s ongoing track record on things like flight times, carbon footprint and access for persons with disabilities? I would say those things fall far more into the realm of “public relations,” vis-a-vis stakeholders and affected publics, than does this one ad campaign.

  5. Judy – agreed. I recall there was a PR Week profile on the in-house guy at Ryanair about a year ago. He was very much a marketing person and so would advocate PR as press agentry. But I think if you tried to do otherwise within such a culture, you wouldn’t last long.

    We actually had a case study based on Ryanair for the CIPR Diploma a couple of years ago. I was sorry it was changed to a fictional organisation as for me, the interesting thing about Ryanair is its uncompromising culture. You would be hard pressed to advocate symmetric or relationship models of practice there. So that makes it interesting from a PR perspective – what type of campaigns can you devise to address issues within such environments, and how do you cope with professional PR pressures to be ethical when being effective may actually mean offending some people?

    Sadly as a fictional organisations, the candidates were free to amend the culture of the organisation away from deadling with the type of issues that do confront practitioners in many organisations. If I personally dislike something do I shut up, put up a fight or just leave?

  6. This is very hot information. I’ll share it on Digg.

  7. Juliet says:

    I’m an advertising student and currently working on an essay which talks about Ryanair’s Advertising.
    My question is:
    with this kind of awful adverts, Does people see Ryanair as a trustworthy airline?


  8. Juliet – thanks for stopping by. Good question, but I suggest you check out the success of Ryanair as your answer. I don’t think the DIY adverts have harmed Ryanair at all and they are consistent with the brand – so what’s the problem? It would be totally out of the character of Ryanair to be spending lots of money on fancy adverts – and many of those that win awards don’t actually deliver return on the investment. Besides, it was the “awful adverts” that got lots of free coverage on the BBC – something money can’t buy.

  9. airobserver says:

    O’Leary already declared that there is no bad advertizing for its company. and it’s true. I mean, this firm only communicate on one thing: its low fares. So as far as the company will mangage to offer the cheapest price, there wld be no bad advertising. 90% of people declares that they chose to book their ticket mainly regarding to the price.
    I just wrote an article, maybe you’ll find some information about O’Leary PR strategy.
    Ryanair PR Strategy scrutinized

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