Ryanair pushes limits of Media Relations with BBC


The BBC is the state funded television and radio system in the UK.  The funding is based on licensing fees for televisions that residents must pay.  In September of 2009, the BBC show Panorama  was working on a story about budget airline Ryanair.  Ryanair has very low prices and has been very successful in 2009.  The show’s title was “Why Hate Ryanair?”  The show was to examine the success of Ryanair and how customers both love and hate the company.  The hate comes from the fees for various activities such as printing a ticket online and a one-time proposal to charge for using bathrooms in the airplane.  If you read stories about this case that have comments, you will see a mix of positive and negative comments from customers of Ryanair.  For instance see this story for comments:   http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/transport/article6868914.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=1185799

The controversy about media relations involves how the two sides handled or failed to handle an interview with Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.  O’Leary is a colorful figure with a big personality and flare for publicity.  Originally, the request for an interview with reporter Vivian White was denied.  However, news reports about the developing story lead Ryanair to contact the BBC about an interview.  Ryanair demanded that the interview either be live or aired unedited.  The BBC refused to allow so much editorial control and denied that request.  The situation involved a number of e-mails between the BBC and Ryanair.  Ryanair posted a 25 page PDF file of these correspondences to their web site and e-mailed them to other journalists with a news release.  Part of the news release is provided below:



Ryanair, the World’s favourite and Britain’s largest airline, today (9th Oct) accused BBC Panorama of bias and censorship as it purports to ‘investigate’ Ryanair but REFUSES Ryanair’s offer of a live or unedited pre-recorded interview in order to fully reply to Panorama’s false claims.


Ahead of Monday’s so called Panorama ‘investigation’, Ryanair today published all of its correspondence with the BBC programme which exposes Panorama’s false claims and repeated refusals to allow Ryanair an adequate right of reply. 


So far Panorama’s two main claims that (a) Ryanair has ‘hidden charges’ (when we don’t) and (b) that Ryanair reached an agreement with Airbus in 2001 (we didn’t), have both been proven to be false. All Panorama are left with is a series of subjective claims from a tiny number of disgruntled former employees and alleged passengers, none of which have been substantiated.


Ryanair’s Stephen McNamara said:


“Ryanair has wasted the last six weeks responding to BBC Panorama’s false claims about Ryanair – which is Britain’s favourite airline carrying 66m passengers this year. Panorama has repeatedly refused Ryanair’s offer of an unedited interview, either live or pre-recorded, because they know that these false claims are rubbish and don’t stand up to scrutiny.


Ryanair calls on the BBC to explain why Panorama refuses to provide balance in its programming and why licence payers are funding such rubbish filled investigations which don’t stand up to scrutiny, which is why Panorama wouldn’t agree to an unedited interview with Ryanair.” http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/news.php?yr=09&month=oct&story=gen-en-091009


The aggressive publicity generated a number of news stories that included Ryanair’s phrase of a “hatchet job” by the BBC.  Ryanair maintained any edited interview would simply be edited to suit the view of the BBC that Ryanair had hidden fees and treated customers unfairly.  Ryanair had its public relations department on standby for a response to the show.  http://www.prweek.com/news/rss/944729/Ryanair-press-team-awaits-tonights-BBC-Panorama-exposE/

The BBC did shot a short 9 minute interview of O’Leary outside of an office and posted it to their web site unedited.  In it O’Leary defends his demand for live or unedited making a number of comments he notes will be edited from this interview and never aired by the BBC.   The BBC web content begins as follows:

“Uncut: Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary

Ryanair is one of the great success stories in the aviation industry, so why does it divide opinion so much, asks Vivian White, and why do people who don’t like it still use it?

Like Marmite, Ryanair is the airline people either love or hate.

The very mention of the name of its high-profile and strident chief executive Michael O’Leary, who is the human embodiment of the airline, provokes strong reactions among travellers at Dublin airport.

‘Obnoxious – that’s the one word I think of when I think of that man,’ says one smartly-dressed young woman who gets straight to the point.”

Here is a link http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8297211.stm

In the US, Herbalife had a concern over an interview with the US news show 20/20 about 10 years ago.  Herbalife filmed the entire interview and uploaded it unedited to a special Internet site.  Advertisements were run encouraging people to view the unedited interview before the 20/20 story to see how the media is bias and distorts interviews.


Questions to Consider

  1.  Do public relations people have the right to make such strong requests about conditions for an interview?
  2. Why are the news media so opposed to strong preconditions for interviews?
  3. How might O’Leary have used a live or unedited interview to hijack the interview and present just the points he wanted to cover?
  4. Would you have posted the e-mail correspondences like Ryanair did?  Provide a justification for your decision.
  5. Overall, how would you rate Ryanair’s media relations for the Panorama interview?  Provide a justification for your evaluation.
  6. Why was Ryanair so concerned about the show and interview?
  7. What other way might Ryanair have handled this situation?

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