Profile: Peter Sherrard, Ryanair

It is Peter Sherrard’s birthday. Appropriately enough, just minutes after our interview, Ryanair’s top PR man entertains ‘London’s finest stripogram’. But the professional undresser is not a gift from his famously outspoken CEO Michael O’Leary.

It is, in fact, another of the low-cost airline’s renowned PR stunts and sideswipes that are directed at the rest of the airline industry.

‘The Polish airline Lot reckoned we would go naked for publicity,’ the boyish Sherrard explains. ‘So we are.’

In many respects, Sherrard comes across as a big kid – he poses for our photographer with his arms outstretched like a plane. But Sherrard is hardly a loose cannon. He gives chapter and verse on the relative strengths of Ryanair, incessantly keen to draw conversation around to its reputation for having the cheapest, most punctual and hassle-free low-cost flights.

‘We carry more passengers cross-border than any other airline,’ he says. ‘And we’re cheaper, but still make much more profit than [chief rival] easyJet.’

It is easy to see why Ryanair and Sherrard are a good fit. The multilingual Irishman rose through the ranks as a marketer at Tourism Ireland, before joining the airline in 2002. He took on the comms role in January 2005, having headed up marketing for the company in Italy. He promised at the time that his strategy was to maintain its ‘bad boy on the block’ image, but does he feel he has succeeded?

‘As a streamlined firm it’s so much easier for us to implement a comms strategy than it is for the larger airlines,’ he argues. ‘So we do appear that bit more edgy.’ Ryanair’s favourite target is easyJet, with the two regularly joshing in the media. Sherrard has recently criticised easyJet’s recently revamped website, which, he says, has made it difficult for visitors to find its punctuality stats. EasyJet corporate affairs director Toby Nicol responds: ‘No one clicked on the old links, so we moved them. We sent Sherrard a “dummies’ guide” to the internet.’

When asked to comment on Sherrard’s PR tactics more generally, Nicol responds: ‘I won’t comment for fear of saying something rude and nasty.’

Sherrard says: ‘If we weren’t making record profits every year, we wouldn’t be able to knock our rivals in the same way. For all the jumping around we do, it would mean nothing if the business model didn’t work.’ Recently married and trim (he plays five-a-side football) Sherrard is constantly on the front foot – a mirror of the Ryanair brand.

‘At Ryanair, we all get involved in PR, and marketing functions all work together,’ he reveals. ‘If our advertising guys need a bit of PR help on a campaign then we’ll give it, and vice versa.’

He says many ideas come from outside the PR department, which is fortunate because Sherrard’s Dublin-based team consists only of himself and one other person.

‘We don’t need to be any bigger,’ he argues. ‘The airline industry is full of massive comms teams that don’t do anywhere near the work we do.’

Sherrard says Ryanair’s business model apes that of American success story Southwest Airlines, which has its own effervescent figurehead:

chairman Herb Kelleher. Ryanair’s O’Leary spends much of his time filling column inches with explosive quotes, like a punk version of Sir Richard Branson. But Sherrard denies that the CEO’s outspoken nature has ever caused him problems.

‘He’s fantastic to work with. I can’t remember ever having a problem with what he’s said,’ claims Sherrard, adding: ‘But if he sees these posed photographs, I’ll never live it down.’

Ryanair is, of course, not immune to flak, with various criticisms made on Channel 4’s Dispatches earlier this year. In relation to a different matter, Sherrard says: ‘We’re going to court over some negative comments posted on our pilots’ website. It’s natural that as we grow we get attacked more.’

Sherrard goes on to admit he and O’Leary have discussed the subject of Ryanair’s PR ‘growing up’ as the firm matures – but he says it won’t happen any time soon. And with that he’s off, to take some photos of a stripper.

Sherrard' CV:

1999 Tourism Ireland, international marketing manager, Italy
2002 Ryanair, sales and marketing manger, Italy
2005 Ryanair, head of comms

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