Conflict as a PR tool: Ryanair

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Theory says that managing conflict is an essential part of PR, that helps companies build trustworthy relationships with their stakeholders. You’d normally think that as long as you keep your client out of conflict which might generate future crisis, you’re doing your job properly. Well, this is not the case if working for Ryanair, whose approach to handling conflict is quite controversial and it’s what sets the brand apart from its competitors.

Let’s take a look at one example: in August 2012 Ryanair failed to address a social media crisis, initiated by an angered customer who had complained about having to pay €300 for printing six boarding passes and won the support of 357,000 users on Facebook. What was Ryanair’s response?

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Absolutely nothing, as they choose not to engage with their target audiences through social media, being afraid, probably, of the massive criticism they’d have to face and respond to directly.

imagesEventually, everything got into the media, where Michael O’Leary, the CEO, called the client who started the conflict “an idiot who deserves to pay for her stupidity”. How to react to that? It clearly shows that Ryanair, as a brand, has no idea how to build an effective relationship with its key stakeholders, customers. Surprisingly, they are still on top as one of the most profitable low-cost airlines.

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How does this work?

Well, for Ryanair, the key issue is to be in the news, to be argued about in TV shows, so that people are aware of them and know that they are a convenient means of getting to their destinations. They basically use any kind of conflict to appear in the media and they clearly know how to take advantage of negative publicity.

Why are they successful?

Mainly because no matter how many conflicts they get involved in, their prices remain low and this is what matters to their customers. They do not expect outstanding customer service our impressive travelling conditions, they just care about the value for money.

images (1)The main question that arises is whether using conflict as a PR tool is ethical or not. Personally, I think that Ryanair has given up the idea of being seen as an ethical company due to the massive criticism they’ve been facing in the last couple of years and as long as their strategy of getting in the media with scandals, false advertising, hidden costs and frustrated customers still works, they won’t do anything to change it.

What is your view on Ryanair’s approach? Can conflict be used as a PR tool?

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8 thoughts on “Conflict as a PR tool: Ryanair

  1. I’ve flown with Ryanair too many times to keep track of… and yes they have poor customer service and outrageous additional costs, but I still use their services.. why is that? as you said, price matters more. And in this tough economic conditions, getting to your destination cheaply and safely is everything. Regarding their use of media, I agree with you. I had never thought about this before but I think that actually they seek negative publicity, because it is still publicity and people are aware that Ryanair is there to provide poor quality but CHEAP services. And as long as they are in the newspapers, everybody;s happy. At least, that’s how I see it. Anyway, good article!

    • Hey, Mark! Thanks for your positive feedback and for sharing your opinion with us. It is really useful to get opinions from people that are so familiarised with the airline! My question to you would be: Is there anything that could determine you stop using Ryanair’s services?

  2. Ryanair.. I’ve travelled with them just once, and I don’t have anything to complain about. Indeed, it was as uncomfortable and disorganised as any other low-cost airline, but I didn’t face any major discomforts. Regarding their PR approach, I am sure that all that negative publicity has a negative impact on the brand on some levels but fortunately for them, this impact is not strong enough to beat the number of people that put value for money on the first place.

    I think that as long as they keep their prices low, this strategy will still work.

    • Dave! Thanks for commenting!

      Indeed, as a Ryanair customer, I can say that I was lucky enough not to face any major problems when flying with them, as well. You’re saying that all this negative publicity affects them in some ways. Do you think that there are people who choose other airlines instead of Ryanair just because of the negative articles they see in the media?

  3. Hello! I think that what Ryanair is doing is definetly working, As long as they maintain their biggest stakeholder group majour interest: low cost, the rest is irrelevant. Obviously they have bad press and negative coverage but people are still flying with it. This affects them in a minimal way and as long as they are ready to take that risk … why not?

    • Hey Serena! thanks for contributing to the discussion.

      Do you think that healthy customer relations ( something that Ryanair can’t be proud of) are necessary only when price is not an essential factor in the company-stakeholder relationship? How important is it to keep your customers happy from all points of view?

  4. Conflict of the type Ryanair practices is extremely risky and, in their case, also unnecessary. If they have true competitive advantages and more positive PR, that should suffice. At the same time, the media (social and traditional) thrives on reporting conflict, which is why “David v. Goliath” stories are always popular. So yes, in certain circumstances, fostering or creating a crisis can work well. I’ve helped some clients deliberately create a public brouhaha to draw attention to their situation/cause, with great success.

    • This is an interesting point of view and quite different from what it has been said till now. On some levels, I agree, but I can’t help wondering whether relying on traditional, positive PR, would bring them that many benefits. This conversial PR they are using at the moments helps them stay in the media, but also differentiate themselves from their competitors, even if in a negative way. So, I think the truth might be somewhere in the middle!

      Thank you so much for your professional insights!

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