The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have thrown the PR rulebook right out the window in some circles. In this unprecedented crisis businesses need their communications advisors more than ever but it appears that not all are taking their advice (or if they are – the advice is clearly misjudged).
Let’s take the aviation industry as an example. It seems to be hurtling towards a free fall – not surprising with travel bans, quarantine, and most of the world still under some kind of lockdown. Two well-known airline bosses and TV personalities have taken two opposing routes in their PR quest to stay afloat.
In one camp, we have Virgin Atlantic’s entrepreneurial sweetheart Sir Richard Branson. In the other, we have Irish, straight talking and brash, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. Two very different and opposing characters. You may have thought that Sir Richard Branson would win this fight – after all, for years he has been portrayed by the media as the king of entrepreneurs. But alas, amid this crisis he has turned from nation’s sweetheart to nation’s most wanted. Even Piers Morgan has managed to fair better with the public during this pandemic.
Branson’s woes began when he, a multi-billionaire, demanded a government bailout for Virgin Atlantic. At a time when the public purse was being used to save individuals from going hungry, the mere question that the taxpayer would have to fork out to a billionaire was not well received. To worsen matters, a PR disaster of a statement announced more than 3,000 job losses.
Instead of cutting to the chase and stating the facts in a compassionate way, the PR bluster spoke about a “post-Covid19 future”, outlined plans to ‘become the most loved travel company and the sustainability leader’ and went on to say ‘the people of Virgin Atlantic are what sets it apart’.
Yes, I am sure all those facing the loss of their livelihoods will be delighted with all the plans.
Step in, marmite figure Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair. He too announced more than 3,000 job cuts but took a different route. In fact, he gave us a masterclass in leadership and PR when he was interviewed on BBC Breakfast.
Despite the bad news, he crafted the interview to suit his own agenda. He looked dishevelled, conveying how hard he is working – aligning himself with his staff. The Ryanair banners behind him looked as though he had ordered them the night before on the cheap. None of this was by accident of course.
He answered difficult questions in a way that suited his brief. He had the confidence to admit that he didn’t have all the answers yet. When asked about the job losses, 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.
He used pre-prepared data to rebut questions about refunds. He directed his answers to frustrated customers. He apologised whilst giving explanations with solid facts. Dare I say, he even seemed empathetic.
He spoke candidly to every audience he intended to. Subtly, he spoke to the most important audience of all: Downing Street.
There is no doubt in my mind that he did the interview with one underlying agenda: to NOT request Government funds directly. He had gaged the mood and played his hand accordingly. His communication strategy was clear: let the Government come to him.
The implied threat of withdrawal from regional airports that would undermine the local economies said it all. O’Leary wanted to position discussions with government to ensure the airports his airline uses get the support that they so desperately need. Like him or not, when O’Leary talks, industry listens.
Reputation is a fragile but crucial asset. Being attuned to public mood is vital, particularly in times of crisis. I would say, O’Leary clearly won the Sky Wars battle last week.