Emma Cowing: O’Leary hits turbulence in PR stunt

Michael O'Leary has always revelled in attention and is a genius at creating his own PR. Picture: PA
Michael O'Leary has always revelled in attention and is a genius at creating his own PR. Picture: PA
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THERE are certain words women don’t say. No, not those words. Plenty of women out there would make a Clydeside docker blush. I’m talking about that strange lexicon deployed by a certain type of man when he thinks he is complimenting a woman.

The type of man who consistently refers to members of the female sex as “ladies”, as though “woman” were a grubby diminutive. I’m talking, of course, about words like “phwoaaarr”.

On Monday, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary conducted a Twitter chat that he – or rather his PR department – irreverently hashtagged #grillMOL. It got off, I’m sure we can all agree, to a flying start when O’Leary replied to a woman questioner with the remark “Nice pic. Phwoaarr! MOL.”

Now, far be it from me to generalise, but it is my experience that men who say “phwoaarr” are often the sort of men who ignore what a woman has to say in order to comment on her appearance. The sort of men who use language towards women that was last acceptable around the time semi-naked “ladies” appeared on lager cans. The sort of men who, increasingly, women have had enough of.

Coming from O’Leary, perhaps we should not be surprised. He has got far on this particular brand of twinkly-eyed charm. Take, for example, Ryanair’s yearly female cabin crew charity lingerie calendar, which features a bevvy of scantily clad women stripping off for charidee. Or the fact that in 2011 the Advertising Standards Authority launched an investigation after a Ryanair advert, featuring a flight attendant posing provocatively in her underwear under the headline Red Hot Fares And Crew attracted complaints of sexism and objectification of women, with another flight attendant leading the charge, saying that it “basically portrays cabin crew as glamour models. Safety is our No1 priority, not the brand of our underwear.” The company eventually withdrew the advert.

And let us not forget the time when he described a proposed new business travel experience as “whores and rum”. Or that Ryanair defended its lingerie calendar by proclaiming it would “continue to support the right of our crew to take their clothes off to raise money for those who need it most”. What troopers. O’Leary, it must be said, has always revelled in attention and is a genius at creating his own PR. It’s part of what put Ryanair on the map – his outspoken, no-nonsense “you get what you pay for, what did you expect, gold taps in the airplane toilet?” attitude. If the airline itself had a personality, it would be that of O’Leary: loud, obnoxious, cheeky yet charming. For years now, it seems to have worked for him.

But something interesting happened during Monday’s Twitter chat, and it wasn’t dissimilar to the pasting that British Gas received last week after an ill-advised Q&A session on the day it announced it was putting its prices up, prompting one wag to inquire: “Is it cheaper for me to burn £20 notes than put the heating on this winter?”

While I wouldn’t put it past O’Leary to have looked at British Gas’s effort and thought, in a no-publicity-is-bad-publicity sort of a way, “look at all the headlines they’re getting!” – what the Twitter Q&A actually did was expose a rather unsavoury side to Ryanair’s notorious devil-may-care attitude to customer service.

“Due to fly to Riga on Saturday but can’t go as my mum-in-law is losing her cancer battle. 388 quid to re-book seems unfair,” read one mildly polite yet unanswered tweet.

“Why no response for a refund request (sent reg. post) in over a month from seriously ill girl with special needs?” was another, also unanswered.

One tweet that did receive an answer read: “Is there any truth in the rumour that you plan to charge passengers for each inhalation they make after take off?” To which O’Leary retorted: “Hi Beth, great idea. Have a team workin’ on it as we breathe!” Oh pass me a needle and thread, I need to stitch up my sides.

What O’Leary has perhaps failed to realise is that today’s customers are far less tolerant of being, if you’ll excuse me being unladylike for a second, screwed out of money. We are still in a recession, and if we are going to spend our hard-earned cash, we want a decent service. We don’t want arrogant cheek accompanied by hidden charges. O’Leary’s schtick may have worked in the Nineties, but these days it’s as old and tired as saying “phwoaarr” to a woman trying to ask you a serious question. Unfortunately for O’Leary, that’s just bad publicity.