'Gifted spokesman' O'Leary must back up words with action to avoid return to 'Ryanair of old'

Ryanair's handling of customer angst and media scrutiny following a mass cancellation of flights brings to mind its low customer service standards of days gone by, says one travel comms expert - but it now appears to have a handle on the situation.

'Gifted spokesman' O'Leary must back up words with action to avoid return to 'Ryanair of old'

The airline yesterday published a list of the flights it would have to cancel over the next six weeks after having "messed up the allocation of annual leave to pilots", according to a statement on its website. One in fifty of its flights will be cancelled - up to 50 per day, affecting 400,000 passengers in total.

The airline had come under fire yesterday for the lack of openness about the situation as the extent of the cancellations became clear, and customer anger grew - although its boss Michael O'Leary was quick to admit that the situation was "clearly a mess".

Paul Charles, founder of travel specialist The PC Agency former comms chief at Virgin Atlantic, said: "The way they handled events yesterday smacked of the Ryanair of old - for a long time, Ryanair had a reputation for bad customer service but in the last few years they have had a much better positioning, and I think had laid to rest the Ryanair of old."

"The leadership team have fallen asleep at the wheel - how they got themselves into this mess is concerning, and that's why there is long-term damage to the brand," he said, noting that future bookings could be significantly hit if those affected by cancellations, or those currently weighing up which airline to use, were put off Ryanair by this crisis. "It's going to become a major financial crisis," he predicted.

Better than BA

"They didn't do what the crisis comms handbook says, which is get all your bad news out in one go," he said, but went on to say that Ryanair's comms had done better than British Airways had in a crisis it suffered in May, saying: "Ryanair tried to deal with the crisis very quickly, whereas BA left it longer."

Ryanair may have been quicker than BA, but Alan Twigg, group head of consumer at agency Way To Blue, told PRWeek he still felt it took "too long for the main man to appear".

Of O'Leary's comments when he did face the press, Twigg said: "I thought he did a fair job in making it all sound pretty mundane. However, that is a dangerous strategy - you can look like you're waving your hand to say 'it's not a big deal, don't worry'.

"They keep repeating that it only affects two per cent of their schedule, but that's still an awful lot of head and heartaches."

'Gifted spokesman'

Andy Sawford, managing partner of Connect Communications, said O'Leary was a "gifted spokesman" but that this crisis "may be his biggest test".

Sawford said that the apology would be helpful in arresting its share price tumble, but that the company now needed action, alongside words. He said: "Money really talks in this situation. There will need to be generous compensation for pilots to cancel leave, and passengers who are affected. They need to activate their crisis comms plan, set up a call centre to handle complaints and queries, and do a lot of work to smooth things over with investors, providing reassurance that this will never happen again."

Meanwhile, Twigg went on to say that the crisis provided lessons for budget services more broadly. "I worry that this is also symptomatic of the broader budget category, where customer expectations are virtually non-existent. The consumer has to start pushing in the budget category for a simple humanity and courtesy – otherwise minimum service levels will just keep falling and falling and the contempt with which some of these brands treat their customers will continue," he said.

Other comms pros had their say on Twitter.

Pressure was also being applied on Ryanair by consumer group Which?

Read next: BA must changes its comms processes after 'risible' response to IT meltdown

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