Ryanair, the Dublin-based discount airline, has traditionally earned a poor reputation for customer service, to the point where it finished dead last in a survey of 100 companies as having the worst customer service in Britain (Smith, 2013). The company’s response to the survey results was fairly typical of Ryanair’s corporate communications strategy: “We surveyed over three million passengers on the Ryanair website last night. Only two of them had ever heard of Which? And none of them had ever bought it or read it.” (Smith, 2013). The response — flippant, sarcastic and insulting — did not surprise anybody because that is how Ryanair has always communicated with the outside world, including with its customers. Yet, there are signs that the company might be revisiting its communications strategy in the past couple of years, and this paper will focus on the historic strategy, and what Ryanair might be doing to change that.
The Old Strategy Comment by Oakes: This is where past campaigns are discussed
Ryanair operates as a discount airline, and projects itself and its customers as caring about nothing else. Customers only care about low fares, the company argues, and therefore that is all we care about. This is part of the company’s image, crafted to convey that it has the lowest fares in a highly competitive discount airline market. Customer service to Ryanair is like anything else — a frill to be indulged in sparingly. The company developed a persona characterized by such dismissiveness and truculence. This came down from the top, in part a reflection of CEO Michael O’Leary, and should be understood as an image that the company deliberately cultivated (Topham, 2014). Dealing with the media and the public — even customers — costs money so it is almost better to have a communications strategy that portrays the company as not having the time nor the inclination to worry about such things. The company cultivated this image, antagonising consumers and the competition alike, showing disdain for all and sundry (Moth, 2014).
The strategy was effective in a couple of respects. First, it helped to differentiate Ryanair from other competitors. Second, it provided O’Leary with opportunities to get in front of a microphone and repeat the company’s low price mantra. Every scandal, every customer service failure, and every controversy simply provided more free publicity for the brand and an opportunity for O’Leary to sell his company (Smith, 2013). This proved essential in that the company would be able to create the perception of being the low cost provider in the industry. Consumers, if the price they are faced with is sufficiently low, are unlikely to shop around too much. Thus, if Ryanair positioned itself as the cost leader it could be the company that the low cost traveller would look to first. Building this reputation — even on the back of customer service scandals and poor communications — proved effective, and help Ryanair to grow its business rapidly on the basis of its reputation (McGarrity, 2015). It was a gamble that customers really did only care about low cost, but the gamble paid off.
In line with this, while other companies were embracing social media as a means to build a positive brand image and to engage with stakeholders, Ryanair has eschewed social media as a viable communications tool, or at least one that it deigned to bother with. The company realized a couple of years ago, however, that its bad reputation was starting to threaten business, and that the old communications strategy was not going to be able to sustain the company through a competitive marketplace going forward. With that, Ryanair sought to overhaul its communications strategy.
The New Strategy Comment by Oakes: This is where the new campaign is discussed. Note the substantial difference in tone and content for this campaign, and the clear time delineation between the two when Jacobs is hired
If the old strategy was belligerent, surly and contemptuous, Ryanair has sought to save its brand image, which was famously poor. The company’s customer service record had made it the subject to ridicule, and as a result they were having trouble winning new customers. The business was at risk, so the first step of the new strategy was to envision what sort of company perception Ryanair wanted to have. . They realized that they may not need to be the customer service masters but that they needed to present a friendlier face to the public, and to the industry at large. There was this moment when CEO O’Leary realized that the company’s image had become too much a reflection of his own personality, but that this was holding the company back (McGarrity, 2015).
The first element of the new strategy was to put a new face on Ryanair. O’Leary was the public face of the company for a long time, which is why the company’s public relations and communications reflected his personality so much. Everybody within the company took their cues from O’Leary’s communications style. The new Chief Marketing Officer, Kenny Jacobs, became the face of Ryanair in 2014. He presented a few new ideas, but mostly Jacobs has been a new voice. This step was necessary to ensure that the culture of the company with respect to communications changed quickly. O’Leary had to step back publicly, and make the case that his style was not the way forward, so that Jacobs could step in an restructure the company’s communications strategy (Topham, 2014).
Jacobs is seeking to restore some positivity to the company’s reputation. While the culture is still the one that O’Leary fostered, Jacobs has the mandate to foster a new one. Jacobs specifically announced a new company policy: “Stop unnecessarily pissing people off” (Topham, 2014). The company overhauled, and modernized to some degree, its ancient website as a means of improving the customer service experience in line with the new customer-friendly face that it is now trying to project.
Another element of the new communications strategy is social media. O’Leary had been famously dismissive of social media (May, 2010), and Ryanair therefore had little in the way of a social media strategy. Indeed, under O’Leary a Ryanair Twitter account would have made appointment viewing for fans of schadenfreude, so it was probably better for the company that they avoided using social media to launch blistering screeds against customers who dared to fly with 10.2 kg in their hand luggage or turn up five minutes late for their flight to Malta. Under Jacobs, Ryanair has sought to build its social media presence, and to do so under the guidance of their “don’t piss people off” policy.
In what has been termed a ‘customer service rebirth (Topham, 2014), the company as embraced an all-encompassing online strategy. The new strategy not only fosters a better attitude towards the customer, but seeks to include the customer in building content. Jacobs’ vision includes customer-to-customer content, providing advice and a way for the company’s customers to communicate. This, the thinking goes, will help create a sense of community and will encourage people to engage more with the company’s website. The result should be, in theory, that they will spend more time on the Ryanair site, providing the company with more opportunities to learn about its target market, and more opportunities to sell to this audience (Topham, 2014).
This new approach to communications has been bolstered by television advertising, something that Ryanair had not done for decades. Increased marketing expenditure is part of the strategy for Ryanair, in particular as it relates to communicating the new brand vision and customer service experience. Comment by Oakes: This is a specific aspect of the new campaign — television ads for the first time in 25 years to communicate the new customer service communications strategy. The content of the ads is quite specifically geared towards restoring the brand image, exactly as discussed in the paper.
It is recommended that Ryanair continue with the current strategy. Not only is it more positive, but Ryanair has only been working with this strategy for just over year. It will take time to change people’s minds about the brand. Thus, more work needs to be done, but Ryanair has to mind the expenditure on revitalizing its brand, because it still has to maintain a low cost focus. The television spots will probably not be an ongoing thing, but social media is relatively affordable, and it can also be a means not just to communicate with customers but to integrate social media with marketing and the website. Remember that Jacobs is a marketing executive, not an IT executive.
Ryanair needs to view public relations as a tool to help it attract more customers. It has in the past used controversy as a platform to sell its message, but it needs to do so now, just in a more positive manner. This is less controversial, but there are still opportunities to generate publicity. More publicity stunts may be required. Public relations should be more aggressive, and include building better relationships with the media, as they are going to be essential to overhauling the company’s image.
There should also be some implementation measures. Social media accounts have followers, likes and those are good starting measures to test the company’s social media reach. In addition, the company should measure how well its social media presence drives traffic to its website, a key marketing element of the communications change. Communications serves a couple of purposes, and those should be measured as well. For example, communications generates press. Ryanair needs to measure the amount of press it gets, because that press is a means of selling its message to the public — the more lines in major publications and the more airtime it gets on the news, the more effective its communications strategy has been. The second purpose of communications is to restore the brand image of Ryanair. This will take time, but the company will need to conduct surveys to ensure that consumers are starting to change their views about Ryanair. Periodic reviews of how well the messages are being absorbed by the public will need to be conducted to test the effectiveness of the new communications strategies. Comment by Oakes: Here we have an entire paragraph on measures.
This strategy fits well together, because Ryanair has a new message that it needs to sell. It wants to minimize advertising expenditure, so it will rely heavily on public relations as a means of selling the new Ryanair image. Press reports on the new policies are a good starting point, but now the company is a year in to its new plan, and it needs to find ways to maintain public relations momentum. By focusing on stories of customers who were happy with the service, and who can help sell the company to telling stories about what Ryanair’s low prices allowed them to do, there is tremendous public relations opportunity for the company. The public relations strategy needs to help the company to communicate its new customer service approach. Comment by Oakes: Here we have two paragraphs discussing the public relations strategy. There is no such thing as a specific “public relations framework” — Google gives zero hits for that — so if there was something the client had in mind, they needed to provide materials relating to that.
The tone that the company uses, in particular when dealing with the media, is going to be part of the public relations strategy. Tone has always been an important part of what Ryanair wants to convey, but in this case the tone has changed. The objective of the communications strategy should be that the media continues to talk about the tone change, for example reporting on how the company is now a success story with respect to changing public perceptions about the brand. Likewise, any innovations that the company enjoys with respect to its website and customer engagement should also be trumpeted to the press, and a more engaging Ryanair may be less controversial, but that does not need to be a bad thing with respect to its success in communications.
May, K. (2010). Ryanair — we will not engage in social media. TNooz. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http://www.tnooz.com/article/ryanair-we-will-not-engage-in-social-media/
Moth, D. (2014). Ryanair CMO: Digital is key for improving our customer experience. Econsultancy. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from https://econsultancy.com/blog/64796-ryanair-cmo-digital-is-key-for-improving-our-customer-experience/
Smith, L. (2013). Ryanair’s O’Leary u-turns on “I’m our marketing director” stance. Marketing. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1216009/ryanairs-oleary-u-turns-im-marketing-director-stance
Smith, O. (2013). Ryanair worst brand for customer service. The Telegraph. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10319838/Ryanair-worst-brand-for-customer-service.html
Topham, G. (2014). New face of Ryanair hopes social media will help change of image take off. The Guardian. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/may/02/ryanair-new-face-hopes-social-media-help-change-take-off
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