Love him or hate him – why is Michael O’Leary the master when it comes to communication?

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Economy & Politics | Leisure & Tourism

Ryanair is grounding the majority of its fleet.By Giselle Daverat, Founder at communications specialists GD Consulting

The news cycle is bursting at the seams with talk of Covid-19 and how the world is going to emerge from this crisis.  What will our new normal look like?  How are businesses supposed to survive and the economy pull through?  In times of crisis we all look to leaders and experts for their insights.

Ironically, however, this is when those who should be talking are not.

Everyone is waiting for someone else to give the answers and very few are willing to put their heads above the parapet.  Business leaders are worried about the scrutiny that they may face in troubled times, but it is now more than ever that you can make a real name for yourselves and be at the forefront of customers’ and clients’ minds when the upswing comes.  All you need is a robust communications plan and you need to stick to it.

O’Leary masterclass 

Ryanair chief, Michael O’Leary, gave us a masterclass in this on Friday morning when he was interviewed on BBC Breakfast.  Despite the ‘bad news’ that he was being interviewed on (the announcement of more than 3,000 redundancies) he managed to craft the interview to suit his own agenda beautifully.  This goes to show that even when the questions are tough, with the right planning you can play it to your advantage.

From the outset, he was in control.  He looked a little dishevelled, conveying how hard he is working– aligning himself with his staff. The Ryanair banners behind him looked as though he had ordered them from Vistaprint the night before for a mere £30 a pop. None of this was by accident of course: he had one intention and he totally nailed it.

He didn’t shy away from any difficult questions either:

“Are these pilot redundancies fair?”

“Is it true that you may be closing regional operations?”

“When would people get their refunds?”

He answered them in a way that suited his brief.  He had the confidence to admit that he didn’t have all the answers yet.  Being able to stand up in front of a live audience of millions and admit to this exudes confidence.

In answering question one, he did as much internal communications as external by talking about the conditions that led to the layoffs.  He spoke directly to shareholders and employees.

On point three, he used data that he had prepared and learnt by heart to rebut the questions.  He was prepared – as a leader should be.  He directed his answers to frustrated customers and apologised whilst giving explanations with sold facts.

He spoke candidly to every audience he intended to.  Subtly, he spoke to the most important audience of all: Downing Street.

Swipe at Sir Richard Branson

There is no doubt in my mind that he did the interview with one underlying agenda: to NOT request Government funds directly.  Afterall, he has witnessed, as we all have, the backlash Richard Branson has received for asking for a bail-out for Virgin.  His communication strategy was clear: let the Government come to him.

The implied threat of withdrawal from regional airports that would undermine local economies said it all.  Ask anyone in Crawley right now – Gatwick, reeling from the lack of work today, has been dealt an added blow with British Airways’ announcement yesterday that it might not return come the end of lockdown.

O’Leary wants to position discussions with local and central government so that the airports his airline uses get the support that they are so desperate for.  Ministers who will be on a call with him in the not so distant future, I am sure, sat up and paid attention.  Whether you like him or not, when O’Leary talks industry listens.

The interview was only five minutes long and a masterclass in how to use the media to push your agenda for your business, your shareholders, your employees and your industry.  No matter how tough the questions.

Love him or loathe him, we need to see more of this kind of leadership over the coming weeks and months. Your people deserve it, your stakeholders demand it.

Whilst the media heavily depended on Sir Martin Sorrell for comment over the years, he seems to have avoided the news agenda this cycle.  There is now space for a new expert or ten to fill that airtime. Invest now in a communications advisor, plan your strategy, and when the upturn comes you will reap the benefits.

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