The copy editor and the story of PR immunity…

Hot on the heels of my post yesterday about copy editor’s nightmares comes this gem from Michael O’Connor Clarke.

The Financial Times ran a story about Irish budget airline Ryanair and their ongoing snafu with Belgian airport authorities.  It seems the Belgians paid Ryanair subsidies to encourage to company to use its airport and now they are looking for the money back.

In the current version of the story on the FT website the story reads:

“Michael O’Leary, Ryanair chief executive, said on Tuesday that the Belgian authorities had written to the airline demanding the repayment of around �3m.

Mr O’Leary said the company had written back making clear it did not intend to repay the money.”

However a quick Google search reveals the original version of the story:

 “Michael O’Leary, Ryanair chief executive, said the Belgian authorities had written to the airline demanding the repayment of about �3m (�2m).

“We have written back to say ‘fuck off’,” he said yesterday.”

My first point here is that you can understand why they re-edited the story!  But this illustrates another interesting point.  Ryanair are currently in what I call the “PR immunity” zone. 

Ryanair are a “no frills” airline, modeled on the South West Airlines business plan but cheaper and nastier.  This is no Jet Blue.

They offer cheap flights to hundreds of destinations, their planes are dirty, their customer service is appalling and everything (including rental of a wheelchair) costs extra.

Their CEO Michael O’Leary is outspoken (see quote above) and in Ireland no company has ever received as much negative publicity as Ryanair. No company. 

There are negative stories in the newspapers, on the radio, on the TV every single week ranging from lost bags, ignorant staff and stranded passengers etc.  Now, where prolonged (three years or more) negative publicity like this would be a major issue for most businesses, it has no affect on Ryanair’s growth (Current market cap: $4.6 Billion, Income: $1.26 Billion Gross Profit: $448 Million.

I think there’s a number of reasons:

1) Honesty.  Ryanair don’t pretend to be anything other than a cheap, nasty, we’ll get you there airline, don’t ask how. When people complain, they are always consistent on their cheap message.

2) Anti-establishment. Ryanair have become one of Europe’s largest airline by competing with and beating all the incumbent (and in many cases State-run) airlines. They consistently portray themselves and fighting on behalf of the consumer and defending open competition.

3) Value. Ryanir has forced a revolution in European air travel.  I personally have had a couple of flights with them at a ticket cost of less than $1. (The airport tax is $30 but the ticket costs $1)

Simply put Ryanair have found a sweet spot where the value of their cheap fares (and they are the most on-time airline in Europe) outweighs the negative stories about their customer service and business practices. People realize they are taking a cheap option and are happy to put up with inconvenience to take advantage of cheap fares. In fact in Ireland, most people resign themselves to the fact that should there be a delay or a problem it’s their own fault for going Ryanair.

A couple of years back a flight from Paris to Dublin had to be postponed overnight.  (Ryanair don’t actually fly into Paris, they fly into an army base miles from the French capital.) The ground staff apologized to the passengers and then took them to their overnight accomodation. No not a Holiday Inn, the passengers spent the night on bunk beds in an army barracks.

Now that’s value….

Will Ryanair continue to enjoy PR immunity? Who knows? But it’s an interesting PR case study.


Practically every Ryanair flight is booked through their website.  However rather than retain a proven web development company to build the online booking system, they hired a couple of students to build it. It’s still running.