On a wing and a prayer: Ryanair angered many customers with their cancelling of flights

On a wing and a prayer: Ryanair angered many customers with their cancelling of flights

In this SmallBusiness monthly series of ‘Lessons Learnt’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle a similar incident in the best way possible.

News travels fast… especially bad news. The internet and social media platforms have made sure that whatever happens on this planet is reported on and relayed in real-time to all who care. So, when a crisis hits, your company had better be ready. Especially when the crisis at hand involves ruining the holidays of thousands of people.

Whether you were directly impacted or not, in the past few weeks it was hard not to hear about low-cost airline Ryanair’s crisis. Having allegedly made several internal holiday planning mistakes, the company was forced to cancel thousands of flights in Europe, leaving customers without holidays when re-arrangements could not be made. It left others stranded abroad with no way home.

The number of disgruntled customers alone would have been enough to deal a huge blow to any company’s reputation, and even forcing some to close their doors for good. But Ryanair’s problems didn’t stop there. The company didn’t just cancel flights, it also tried to hide the real reason for these cancellations – stating that it was trying to sort out a backlog, causing delays, instead of admitting its mistakes. When these mistakes were revealed, internal voices started to rise in volume, complaining about the appalling treatment that Ryanair employees were facing.

All in all, this crisis makes for a remarkable case study of ‘how not to handle a crisis’. So, what lessons can we learn?

The world demands transparency

When the Ryanair team realised they had made a (huge) mistake when planning holidays for their pilots, it must have become clear very quickly to those in the know that a media storm was inevitable. You simply cannot cancel the flights of 70,000 passengers and hope that it will just go away. If there is no escape then there is only one solution: be transparent.

Admitting your mistakes (in full), apologising and committing to repair any damage done while communicating consistently about the action you are taking should be the modus operandi in this kind of situation. Needless to say, trying to hide the truth will only make things worse. And letting the full truth emerge over time will simply prolong the pain.

Act fast

If you want to keep pace with the media reaction and coverage of your story, and retain some control of the narrative, you need to act fast. You can’t control what people will say about the crisis itself. But you can influence the news cycle by communicating the facts before the speculation starts.

When the crisis broke, one of the most popular comments on Ryanair’s Facebook page was one posted by a customer asking the company to reveal the full list of cancelled flights so they could make other arrangements. When customers tell your company what to do – and are right about it – you know that something has gone terribly wrong in your crisis management. To avoid this happening, your crisis communications plan must include the answers to questions that haven’t even been asked.

Do the right thing

It is impossible to say that your company will never face a crisis. Mistakes happen. How you deal with these mistakes says as much (or possibly more) about your brand. Your greatest potential ambassadors are your employees. Happy employees make for happier customers – both precious assets when it comes to facing a crisis.

Getting employees on your side means doing the right thing…long before the crisis occurs. It spoke volumes that, in the midst of the crisis, Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s CEO decided to insult his pilots, calling them ‘precious’, and undoubtedly fuelling further vitriol within his staff. The culture any business should aim to cultivate is one where employees will readily jump to their employer’s defence. And it goes without saying that an employer should never publicly disparage its own team.

The beauty of our social media age is that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ will generally prevail. If your business deals with a crisis in a responsible, compassionate way, you can’t go far wrong.

Further reading on reputation management

Does your business turn over between £50,000 and £500,000? If so, you are eligible for the new Small Business Grants initiative from SmallBusiness.co.uk. We’re giving away £5,000 every month in a free-to-enter competition. Apply now by clicking here. Good luck!


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