A video leaked to the media of an elderly black woman being racially abused by another passenger boarding a flight from Barcelona to London Stansted.
In the video (below), captured by another passenger David Lawrence, a white man refused to sit next to the woman, Deslie Gayle, describing the Windrush generation pensioner as an "ugly black bastard". Eventually the woman was moved to another seat by Ryanair cabin crew.
The video caused a storm on social media and so far the budget airline has only offered an emotionless single line tweet in response.
Statement: We are aware of this video and have reported this matter to Essex Police— Ryanair (@Ryanair) 21 October 2018
PR industry professionals tweeted their thoughts to PRWeek:
Admit their staff mishandled the situation.— Tony Langham (@TonyLangham) 22 October 2018
Ensure it doesn't happen again by either changing culture, better staff training or changing policies - or a mix of all 3.
Refuse to fly him again.
Apologise properly to her, in person, show they care by offering free flights. https://t.co/MhTW38LkZp
Issue second statement which:— Farimah (@Farimah) 22 October 2018
1) Condemns man’s behaviour and apologises for woman’s experience
2) Say they are learning from this and commit to training around racist incidents, a la Starbucks
3) Detail how they’re assisting police with enquiries
Ryan Air need to elicit a sincere public apology, acknowledging that they condemn racist behaviour. Further, a training programme needs to be underway immediately for all staff to attend, so situations like this can be dealt with appropriately & effectively. https://t.co/oycigWIuYk— Lili Dewrance (@DewrancePR) 22 October 2018
Interested to know what kind of training is provided to @Ryanair staff to deal with racism. Of course handled abysmally- why wasn’t the man ejected, where’s the official statement? If a black man verbally attacked an old white woman this would have been a very different story https://t.co/U2uv8OeX9L— Eudaimonia Comms (@EudaimoniaCom) 22 October 2018
Today, Gayle told ITV News that the incident had left her in shock and unable to eat and sleep:
A widow in her 70s, who was the victim of a racist tirade on a Ryanair flight, has told ITV News how the incident has left her in shock and unable to eat and sleep. Read more: https://t.co/5JFhtGq7HT pic.twitter.com/D0DqooV3em— ITV News (@itvnews) 22 October 2018
PRWeek approached Ryanair for further comment but was referred to the same statement by the airline’s head of comms Robin Kiely: "We have reported this to the police in Essex and as this is now a police matter, we cannot comment further."
PR leaders who specialise in communications for the travel sector were alarmed by Ryanair’s lack of an adequate response, particularly as the company has spent the past few years trying to improve its customer relations image.
Rooster PR managing director James Brooke said Ryanair’s poor handling of the incident shows a "worrying lack of depth and experience in their comms department, especially at weekends when the story broke".
"While the incident itself is abhorrent and totally inexcusable, Ryanair has put the airline at the heart of the story by a series of missteps and lack of action with any empathy or bite," he said.
"Leaving the immediate incident aside, bland, non-committal legal department-dictated statements such as ‘We are aware of this video and have reported this matter to Essex Police’ on their twitter feed and "as this is now a police matter, we cannot comment further" in response to media enquiries, is completely unacceptable."
'Where is Michael O'Leary?'
The PC Agency founder Paul Charles described the incident as "one of the worst showcases of English behaviour I’ve ever seen" and was surprised at how little the company has done to quell public concerns.
"Most brands would have said we do not tolerate this sort of behaviour. It’s very surprising they haven’t done this; by relying on a short tweet, Ryanair is not suggesting it disagrees with what the passenger says," Charles said.
"What’s extraordinary is that Ryanair has made huge inroads into improving their customer relations in the last two to three years...but it beggars belief they have not addressed this sort of behaviour. You have to ask who is advising Ryanair and its shambolic PR strategy.
"I can’t believe that [Ryanair CEO] Michael O’Leary would agree with this statement and would not be stepping in. Where is Michael O’Leary?"
Both PR leaders believe that Ryanair’s image will take a "battering" and undermines the airlines attempts to appear more customer-friendly.
Part of the backlash has been another revival of the #boycottryanair campaign on social media, but Charles points out Ryanair’s brand strength is somewhat resilient to PR crises.
"Ryanair is not new to facing boycott calls, it’s been there before and is one of Europe’s biggest carriers from a profitability point of view," he said.
"But it is now bordering on seeing its brand strength eroded because it is not in tune with public thinking on this issue. Their leadership need to address the response urgently if they are not to damage the brand much further."