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Can You Save Your Reputation In A Crisis?

The recent latest debacle from Ryanair might have hit CEO Michael O’Leary by surprise. He is so used to insulting his passengers he probably wasn’t anticipating quite so much outrage from them and the subsequent revolt from his overworked pilots when hundreds of flights had to be cancelled to give pilots holiday leave.

I was asked by BBC Three Counties Radio to comment on the situation from a PR perspective, including whether O’Leary can weather this particular tsunami or if he will get dumped by the company. He is an interesting subject, for his whole focus has always been anti customer and anything to do with service. Some of his most famous quotes/initiatives have included:

He plays hardball because he thinks that people will accept anything as long as they get rock bottom fares and so far he has been proved right. He’s turned the company into a massive success, although a while ago he seemed to be softening his stance a little bit towards his customers and he has even issued an apology for the flight cancelling catastrophe, which will continue for six weeks and affect approx. 315,000 passengers.

But while this blunder would put other airlines in the business emergency ward, it’s unlikely to affect Ryanair even if those 300,000+ passenger refuse to fly with the airline ever again (they probably will). Ryanair remains cheap, usually reliable and pretty much unassailable whether it has good or, usually, bad publicity thanks to its mouthy and controversy-loving leader.

This situation might shake the city and shareholders but I don’t expect O’Leary to leave his office any time soon. Even if he did he would probably spend more time on the golf course and have a queue of other businesses ready to hire him.

So how do you salvage your reputation if your company hits a crisis? It’s much more difficult for SMEs because it is so easy for them to rise – or fall – by your reputation. The best way to approach a problem is to not hide from it, especially if the media sharks are circling. Sometimes you have to admit mistakes but always add a positive stance and say you are intending to fix the situation, whether it affects your customers, staff or both.

O’Leary’s reputation as an anti hero has worked well for him. I heard him interviewed on Radio 4 before this crisis hit and he was superb, bullish, no nonsense, takes no prisoners. He can get away with it but not everyone would be so adept at sidestepping tricky questions by being both rude and successful.

If you need to manage a business crisis which is about to go public you should probably seek professional help, which in the long term will prove to be a wise investment. You probably can’t hide from it, especially in the digital age. News is now immediate and you can’t stop it from leaking. Best to get advice and face it head on.

I will be watching what happens next with Mr O’Leary with great interest, as I’m sure the City and shareholders will as well.