Issues in Public Relations – Crisis Management

Posted on February 23, 2010

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What crisis? It’s just publicity.

Ryanair’s advertising and public statements are often deliberately controversial in order to generate additional free publicity for the airline. In the past CEO, Michael O’Leary, has spoken about proposed measures to reduce overheads further, for example, eliminating two toilets to add six more seats on their aeroplanes, redesigning the seating layout to allow for standing room at the back, charging extra for overweight passengers, demanding passengers carry their checked-in luggage to the plane, and charging for the use of the toilets.

One of Ryanair’s most controversial publicity stunts involved the French President and his partner. In 2008 they released an advertisement in the French newspaper Le Parisien featuring Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni. At the time they were not yet married but there was a lot of media speculation that the pair were soon going to be. The picture showed the couple sitting happily together, with a caption next to Ms. Bruni, which said, “With Ryanair, my whole family can come to my wedding”, referring to the 100,000 cut-price fares the airline was offering. As expected, the French President and his partner were less then pleased to be part of yet another Ryanair publicity stunt and sued the airline.

This sort of publicity is a PR nightmare for most organisations, where crisis management would immediately be put into place, however Ryanair are not like most organisations. They seem to have a policy that says all publicity is good publicity. Ryanair did apologize for using the couple’s image without their consent, but insisted it meant no offence, – “It was a humorous comment on a matter of great public interest,” they said. Ryanair offered to donate €5,000 to any charity of Mr. Sarkozy’s choice, but he declined and the couple proceeded to bring the case to court. Former model Carla Bruni was seeking €500,000 compensation, while Mr. Sarkozy sought a symbolic €1 in damages. The high profile couple won the case, however, the court in Paris awarded Ms Bruni only €60,000, a fraction of the sum she had sought. Mr. Sarkozy was given the symbolic  €1 he had claimed for himself.

The case created worldwide media coverage, with every newspaper from the Times to the Sydney Herald covering the story. By being controversial the Ryanair public relations team have continually ensured that the resultant interest generated by their unorthodox promotional methods achieve column inches far in excess of the original advertising spend. This is a method they have successfully used time and again.

After the case Ryanair said “In the light of the extraordinary worldwide publicity generated by this single advert, we have instructed our lawyers to write to President Sarkozy’s office, offering to make a similar 60,000 payment to any French charity of the President choice.” The company appears to enjoy the extra free publicity generated and its business does not seem to be adversely effected by the inevitable legal conflicts which arise from its controversial promotion techniques. It would be an interesting experience to attend the monthly brainstorming sessions in the Ryanair Public Relations department. 

The airline offers cheap flights and by often using quite controversial means, they let the customer know about it. This has worked effectively for them, because as O’Leary has been quoted as saying, “The European consumer would crawl naked over broken glass to get low fares.

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