- Publicly called a woman who forgot her boarding pass an “idiot.”
- Told another passenger who demanded a refund, “You’re not getting a refund, so f*** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories.”
- Considered putting pay toilets on his airliners.
- Suggested eliminating seat belts and offering standing-room-only flights.
- Managed to amuse/annoy (take your pick) both his industry and his company in a single sentence: “The airline industry is full of bull********, liars and drunks, and we excel at all three in Ireland.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.
The story I tell about O’Leary involves a report on the BBC investigative news show “Panorama” about Ryanair’s hidden fees that sometimes driving airfare to a level that rivals larger carriers. O’Leary blasted the report, deriding those involved and—while not completely botching his response—generally throwing a hissy fit.
But my colleagues in the PR firm aren’t so sure O’Leary is the loose cannon he appears to be. I admit, too, that I may have to rethink my position—to a point.
There’s no denying that O’Leary is entertaining, albeit in that watching-a-train-wreck-happen vein. His latest adventure was a Twitter chat in which he hit on a female questioner, espoused the value of tantric sex, and made this unprompted observation: “Call me genius, Jesus, Superman, or odious little s**t, whatever takes your fancy as long as you fly Ryanair!”
That last comment offers us a peek at O'Leary's motivation. His crazy behavior may be more intentional than he would have us believe. He entertains us. If we’re entertained, we’re paying attention. And if we’re paying attention, we’re open to buying what he’s selling.
O’Leary isn’t the first person to use offensive acts to get noticed—Miley Cyrus, anyone?—and I can’t deny it works to some degree. But I stop well short of advocating the approach.
And that's why I’m troubled when I read comments from PR pros calling O’Leary “refreshing” and “outrageous but harmless.” I think he does long-term harm to the brand; indeed, Ryanair's recent easing of baggage fees is part of a concerted effort to rejuvenate customer relations.
The fact is, everyone eventually wearies of the class clown. And when the jokes grow stale, the clown rarely has anything else to offer.