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Did Ryanair take brand authenticity too far?

Crisis communications is an unpredictable game; your brand is in trouble and your main objective is to reassure your audience and stakeholders that your brand can be trusted. This week Irish low-cost airline, Ryanair found itself knee-deep in a crisis. The airline has announced it was cancelling 50 flights per day until 31 October, putting holiday makers into crisis, ironically due to a miscalculation of pilot holiday leave. If may calculations are correct, that’s over 2,100 flights set to be cancelled affecting more than 400,000 people. Ouch.

Authenticity, alongside transparency and timeliness are integral to crisis comms – however, can a brand ever be too authentic in a situation like this?

Fairfax has reported that Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary commented: “We f*cked up here, and we have to fix it” on a teleconference. Now I don’t know the context of that teleconference call, and if it was stated directly to media or leaked – regardless, a CEO in this situation knows every word is on the record.

On reading this I was conflicted – as a marketer, and as a consumer.

As a marketer, for a CEO of one of the world’s largest airline brands to respond to a major crisis that will affect nearly half a million people is damaging. It will further aggravate the emotions of those affected, and spur the 24-hour media cycle to publish more negative brand coverage.

Yet, without the swearing, the sentiment of his comments are 100% right – they are in an unprecedented predicament and it does have to be fixed. He has accepted the blame and is focused on finding a solution; however the efforts are overshadowed by one word chosen to communicate them in one comment.

O’Leary is an Irish businessman known for his arrogant personality. Ryanair is a proud Irish company known as the party airline, or as my colleague said, ‘they serve drinks before you take off’. If you were to look at their brand personality, Ryanair would be a 30 year old, male, who likes a Guinness, takes cheap flights to follow his football team around Europe with his mates – and you know what, yep he probably swears.

O’Leary is a living, breathing (and slightly older) reflection of the Ryanair brand and he responded in a way his hometown audience would understand and relate to. However, Ryanair is an international brand – how does this response translate to their Danish, German, Italian, French and Spanish customers who are affected around Europe?

As a consumer, on the opposite side of the world, who is not directly affected by the flight cancellations – I read O’Leary’s comment, chuckled to myself and thought ‘at least he’s honest.’ Ryanair is in a pickle and if it was all corporate dribble churned out to say something, and nothing at the same time – frankly, I would be more aggravated with feelings of corporate discontent.

In a way, one descriptive word managed to make a billion dollar company, human.

Overall, effective crisis communications is there to assist your audience, those who are and are not directly affected, to communicate what is going on, what the business’ response will be, mitigate legal implications for the company and minimise the impact of the event on long-term brand goodwill.

Will swearing further impede Ryanair’s brand? No, the media will still focus on the scale, impact and reason for the cancellations. Will some people be offended? Yes, however Ryanair may find more of their target audience relating to the candour than being offended. Could other brands get away with it? No, Ryanair is walking a fine line – swearing still made a news story in itself – but we understand what the brand represents and the personality of the CEO.

F*ck is not about to enter mainstream corporate communications, and I recognise this one line was not an official response on the record, or the only response by Ryanair – but it’s always interesting to see the audience reaction when swearing does seep in.

Elle Stewart is an Account Manager at Sydney-based integrated communications agency, Zadro – and realised while writing this piece she is about to marry the Ryanair brand personality!

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