Profile: Oliver Aust, head of communications and public affairs, easyJet

EasyJet comms head Oliver Aust believes the airline's PR strategy helps it stand out from the competition, finds Gemma O'Reilly.

Oliver Aust
Oliver Aust

 

The general election is keeping easyJet's comms director surprisingly busy. All three main party leaders have had something to say about aviation since launching their campaigns.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have committed to reform air passenger duty, making it a 'green tax on emissions rather than on passengers', which easyJet supports.

Add all this to an impending court case between the airline and its founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and one could excuse easyJet communications chief Oliver Aust for being a little flustered.

Instead Aust, 34, is remarkably calm and unruffled when PRWeek meets him at easyJet's headquarters. In case there is any doubt this is the office of an airline, it is situated in an inauspicious hanger at Luton Airport.

Warm and affable, the German-born PR and public affairs professional is well used to drama after working at Britain's biggest airline, by passenger numbers, for the past five years.

Last summer, Aust was promoted to the top communications position at the airline, replacing longstanding head of comms Toby Nicols. It is clear Aust has settled into the role well: 'There has not been a single boring day. Literally every day has been different. I love the buzz that creates. I can't imagine doing a boring job.'

Aust oversees a team of just five covering corporate, financial, public affairs, internal communications and CSR. EasyJet now operates 1,000 flights a day across 30 countries, which would make for a tough communications job even for a team more than double its size.

Aust says PR, and experiential PR in particular, has always been an integral part of the brand, and the discipline remains essential for building the company. But he admits it has been difficult to maintain the airline's 'fun' and 'quirky' image as the company has grown. However, he believes easyJet's approach to PR helps it stand out from its competitors, citing the airline's well-documented rivalry with fellow low-cost airline Ryanair as a case in point.

'They also do a lot of stunts. But what we do hopefully puts a smile on people's faces. It's not designed or intended to be offensive or brash. It's irreverent, it's fun, it's in your face. Ryanair will happily be offensive as long as it gets them in the paper.'

Aust admits it can be difficult to get good stories about the company into the newspapers. He notes the UK media are particularly obsessed with 'travel chaos' stories: 'Last winter was extremely challenging for us because of the snow. It was an unprecedented winter. The media love those stories, especially if we're close to Christmas and it's very emotional for everyone travelling home.'

Aust has been encouraging his team to look at the wider news agenda to find hooks to get easyJet positive coverage. He has also introduced an 8.30am meeting with his team, by which time they are expected to have listened to the Today programme, read the papers and looked online at the latest news.

'I want everyone to know what the news agenda is for the day. Not everyone likes that, but it's the way the media work now,' he says. 'It's far easier to get into general stories about airlines than to create news from scratch. We need to be thinking about what's in the news, whether it's airstrikes, BA ballots, or a decision on BAA in the courts. The key is to be the airline of choice for journalists to go to, and for us to be actively contributing to their coverage.'

Financial Times aerospace correspondent Pilita Clark says of Aust: 'He is polite, responsive, knowledgeable and doesn't try to pretend he knows something if he doesn't. He is almost always available.'

She points to one minor exception one night, last month, when news leaked out that Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall was to be easyJet's new CEO. 'For some reason his phone was busy for a long time that night,' she jokes.

McCall's appointment has provoked a mixed reaction from the media, with some commentators pointing to her lack of aviation experience. Aust, however, believes the appointment heralds a new era in communications for the airline.

'The media is her home and where she feels most comfortable. Her appointment has polarised opinion and that's fine. The response we had was phenomenal in terms of the exposure she got for being an outsider. Her picture was everywhere across Europe. People will have to judge her based on the results she will get from the company in a year's time. I think she will be an absolute asset on the comms side.'

At least in Aust, McCall has an experience pilot guiding her comms team.

 

Oliver Aust's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Graduating from the LSE opened a lot of doors when I took the plunge and moved to Brussels after my studies. My real career break came when General Motors chose me out of 250 applicants to manage its European transport and environmental policy, despite having only had three years of work experience. It was fascinating, but even then it was clear that GM was in trouble. Joining easyJet was another major step as it brought me back to London and is such a fast-moving environment compared with Brussels and GM.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Tony Spalding, former communications director at Vauxhall and my boss at GM. He taught me that PR and work in general is all about people.

- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

Be relevant. Focus on the big picture and don't get lost in details or your inbox. Step back every day and think about how you can make a difference.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Passion, teamwork and hunger for coverage.

 

CV

2009: Head of communications and public affairs, easyJet

2007: Head of corporate affairs, easyJet

2005: Corporate affairs manager, easyJet

2003: EU affairs manager, General Motors, Brussels

2000: Communications consultant, Hill & Knowlton, Brussels

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