Why Ryanair's Marketing Nightmare Is Likely Down To HR

Social media is ablaze with fuming customers who have flights cancelled, and it was even the lead story of last night's television news. This was, of course, after a weekend when the mess Ryanair has got itself into was splashed across every news outlet.

Although 2% of flights being cancelled doesn't sound too huge, it equates to around 400,000 passengers who may have missed weddings, had to cancel holidays and have had to book alternative tickets to make a business meeting. All because Ryanair claims that it has a problem with too many pilots taking holidays at the same time. Ingenious spin on the problem -- and almost certainly not the full truth. 

It's an interesting story because it chimes perfectly with some research I helped the Chartered Institute of Marketing with earlier in the year. Marketers' big concern is that they are held responsible for how their brands are seen, but they often have no control over those huge issues that can impact brand image. It might be a loudmouth founder -- such as Uber has previously had to live with -- or accounting principles that leave the public wondering if companies are paying their proper share of tax, which applies to the US tech giants. 

Ryanair is the perfect example of this fear among marketers, and it's even more interesting because the focus is arguably on the HR department, or at least how it treats its staff. 

I will have to be careful how I word this, but, let's just say the news reports are now beginning to include input from pilots that the airline treats staff so badly that many have walked. It's no coincidence that Norwegian Air, for example, has recently been expanding its routes, including flights to the US from London Gatwick, at the same time that Ryanair is losing pilots. I know someone who has made this exact switch in their career. I know another pilot who always joked about how Ryanair was the last resort for most pilots because of how they were treated by a brand that has been associated with not truly caring for staff or passengers throughout its long history. 

Today that seems to be confirmed. For some reason, the airline thought it would be a good idea to put its CEO, Michael O'Leary, in front of the press. Big mistake. They must have known that he would come across as unapologetic as ever and simply give the story even more legs. He loves attention and he says all the right things to make the story about him, rather than the problem. Talk about putting gasoline on a fire.

The claim about holidays being taken at the same time was made again, and the whole issue was put down to an administrative mess by a well-known CEO who showed little remorse for anyone affected. It's far more fundamental than that. When I hear the reports with the CEO's excuses and reported feedback from pilots that their colleagues have walked from an uncaring employer, I know which I believe. 

The fact that Ryanair has been canceling flights the night before and leaving people stranded with little proactive help to get them to their destination is the final nail in the coffin of its brand name. 

Nobody will be too surprised that Ryanair is being accused of treating customers badly. However, it may come as a shock that it's having such HR problems holding onto its pilots. It's a deeper problem because it will make people think twice about booking tickets for next year when they are released within the next month or so. Why would you buy a ticket you're not sure will count for anything until the night before the flight because the airline can't attract and retain the necessary pilots to fly its multiple routes?

It's easy to think of marketing scenarios where tax arrangements, CSR and executives letting the brand down can impact brand image. Today, however, we have a great example of how HR can seriously damage a company's performance, and combined with poor customer service, can see a brand's name dragged through the mud. 

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