Newsmaker: Michael O'Leary's pursuit of profit is fueling Ryanair's PR rethink

Ryanair's "lovable monster" tries to turn on the charm, reports Alec Mattinson.

Michael O'Leary: "Short of committing murder, bad publicity sells more seats."
Michael O'Leary: "Short of committing murder, bad publicity sells more seats."

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary will not be the last person to mellow with age.

The corporate world's Vinnie Jones of the boardroom appeared to have suddenly discovered his inner Mary Poppins when he promised to lead a customer-friendly culture change at the no-frills airline recently.

The initiatives, which include relaxing boarding pass and luggage fines for customers, allocated seating and a website overhaul, are not especially groundbreaking in themselves. But they represent a significant change to a comms policy that focused relentlessly and exclusively on cost, cost and cost.

To understand O'Leary's approach to business is to understand the culture of Ryanair. One contemporary describes him as a "lovable monster" who can be courteous, charming and loyal, but whose "business persona of hardness and ruthlessness pervades the organisation".

PR has always been vital to the brand. Advertising the comms director job as the worst job in PR in itself shows keen awareness. O'Leary calls the recurring story of never-enacted plans to charge passengers to use toilets "the gift that keeps on giving", as does the notoriously blunt CEO's turn of phrase. He has gone on record as stating that "short of committing murder, bad publicity sells more seats".

But in the past month he told shareholders the company will "eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off" and subjected himself to a public grilling on a #TellMOL Twitter Q&A.

So what changed? For the first time the Ryanair business model is coming under pressure after the airline issued two profit warnings in as many months.

Ryanair comms director Robin Kiely denies the "significant customer service initiatives" are a shift of focus or a response to the profit warnings. He contends that they had been planned for some time, but others are not so sure.

O'Leary's new persona is because something has gone wrong in the business, one observer notes. Another suggests it shows how Ryanair has missed a trick by focusing messaging purely on cost when contemporaries, such as easyJet, have made strides on service.

O'Leary remains a consummate media performer - part showman, part evangelist - and will continue to generate acres of copy. But his Twitter engagement attempts against the odds have also been a success by most measures, certainly compared with British Gas' disastrous recent efforts.

Jordan Stone, strategy director of We Are Social, says that "somehow Ryanair managed to pull it off", adding: "Though I question to what extent the policy changes were the result of the Twitter Q&A, Ryanair has been successful in appearing to listen and do something about the feedback it received on Twitter."

Ryanair is not going to suddenly turn into British Airways, nor does it want to - as its newly launched 2014 charity calendar featuring scantily clad air hostesses suggests. But the carrier is finally moving from precocious, punchy upstart to a more sober, grown-up approach to customers befitting a EUR4.6bn business with 81 million passengers.

Can the emperor himself change his clothes too? The proof will, of course, be in the profits.

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