Leader: Ryanair's rebuttal hides Achilles heel

Peter Mandelson, the man whose PR skills were central to Labour’s escape from the political wilderness, always preached rapid and effective rebuttal of bad news. He was right. Moving quickly and adeptly under fire is one of the pre-requisites of sound reputation management. And this week we saw a prime example, but from the private sector.

Channel 4, no slouch in PR terms, began trailing Monday's Dispatches investigation into Ryanair several days before it aired.
But well before anyone had seen the documentary, the airline seized control of the media agenda, attacking C4's publicity photo showing a stewardess asleep on an aircraft door, and offering millions of free seats.

Ryanair's ebullient boss Michael O'Leary was widely quoted in the press and went live on air in Ireland to debate the issues with Dispatches' producer.

Despite appearing relaxed about its image – Ryanair spends little on frills, logos or colour advertising – O'Leary is actually obsessive about reputation.

He recognises that he is the brand of the airline and will never shirk the media glare. His straight-talking approach offends some, but endears him to many journalists weary of spin and corporate double-speak.

Ryanair churns out a dozen press releases a week, but the message is frighteningly consistent: we fly you from A to B, safely, punctually and more cheaply than any other airline. Everything else is a distraction.

The Achilles heel for Europe's fastest growing airline is that its cost-cutting zeal could be perceived as putting safety at risk. O'Leary knows this, and his offensive was intended to rebut any such implications. So far, Ryanair's safety record is sound, but should the Department of Transport find any fault in light of the Dispatches investigation it would be a major blow.

Ryanair's media relations rigour should be lauded and copied, but the airline must be even more religious in ensuring passenger safety measures remain paramount. 

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