Ryanair: PR v the Law

The uncompromising CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, undertook his first Twitter chat yesterday, resplendent as he was in a large green leprechaun hat and lavish ginger beard—typical business attire in the Irish capital, so it would seem.

The press was in two minds as to how it went.

According to the Guardian, he managed to compare himself to Jesus and proved himself to be an unreconstructed leprechaun by stating, 'Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL' in one of his early replies to a female questioner. Oh dear.

It is clear, however, that Mr O'Leary is an unqualified supporter of free publicity—good or bad. In fairness, who wouldn’t be in favour of good PR? As far as bad PR goes, I’ll leave that one with you to decide.

However, as Michael O'Leary is aware, the law does sometimes chuck on its dusty wig and elbow itself into the world of PR. Sadly, the magic powers of a leprechaun hat do not extend to allowing the wearer to say or do whatever they like from a legal point of view. So today, having a bit of fun, I thought that I would analyse some of the more bonkers Michael O'Leary quotes to see what the law thinks.

The answers are given in terms of English law although, as it happens, Ryanair is an Irish airline so it is subject to Irish law. That said, I'm not going to let this major fact spoil the fun.

Seatbelts don’t matter because if you crash in a plane you’re all dead anyway

An amusing quote, I grant you, but alas it is not quite true as anybody who watched The Plane Crash on Channel 4 earlier this year will confirm. (This is well worth watching, by the way—not, however, on a tablet computer at 28,000 feet).

The documentary found that 95.7% of people involved in a plane crash will survive and that even in the most serious class of crashes, 'more than 76% of those on board live to tell the tale.' 

So sorry Mr O'Leary, but we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. As for the law, have a wee look at Regulation (EEC) No 3922/1991 on the harmonisation of technical requirements and administrative procedures in the field of civil aviation and the rule NCO.IDE.A.140 on 'seats, seat safety belts, restraint systems and child restraint devices'.

No, I don't entirely know what NCO.IDE.A.140 means either. I think that it is a convoluted clause reference. The upshot, however? Seat belts work and the law agrees. So there. Next!

You're not getting a refund so **** off. We don't want to hear your sob stories. What part of 'no refund' don't you understand?

I don’t know the context in which this was given. I'm guessing that Mr O'Leary was in his typical feisty mood?

Firstly, case-law suggests that the Ryanair boss would be unlikely to be prosecuted under the Public Order Act 1986: eg using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. He has more chance of being appointed as CEO of BA, I should imagine, than falling foul of this law.

He should, however, remind himself of Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights (oh how I wish the titles of EU laws were just a tad snappier). Indeed, his staff could tell him all about it as they have thoughtfully produced a handy guide on it. Under EU law, if you are denied boarding or your flight is cancelled or overbooked, you are entitled to either:

  • transport to your final destination using comparable alternative means, or
  • have your ticket refunded and, where relevant, be returned free of charge to your initial departure point.

 Oooh look: the 'refund' word! Next!

One thing we have looked at is maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in the future. If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet I would carry them myself. I would wipe their bums for a fiver

Mr O'Leary may be onto a winner here, at least from a legal point of view. The Civil Aviation Authority in the UK states that, ‘surprising though it may seem, airlines are not required by law to provide toilets. Thankfully most do except perhaps on very small aircraft on very short routes. If one or more of the toilets on board are out of order, there are no regulations under which an airline must compensate passengers for the inconvenience.’ Health and safety legislation, however, might well apply to Mr O’Leary’s final unorthodox offer.

If drink sales are falling off we get the pilots to engineer a bit of turbulence. That usually spikes up the drink sales

I really hope that this was a joke.

Legally speaking, negligence in common law and offences under The Air Navigation Order 2005 immediately spring to mind. The pilot's professional code of conduct (ALPA) may also have a few words on the topic, 'an air line pilot will keep uppermost in his mind that the safety, comfort, and well-being of the passengers who entrust their lives to him are his first and greatest responsibility.'

I haven't yet spotted a get-out clause for drinks sales.

People ask how we can have such low fares. I tell them our pilots work for nothing

OK, I give up. I really do.

In any event, over the years it has become clear to me that Ryanair is a perfect company for lawyers. We might get all pious and complain standoffishly over our half-moon glasses that Mr O'Leary has repeatedly shown disdain for organisations such as the ASA*. Don't be fooled. This is just a smoke screen. Quietly, we love the fact that he gives us so much to write about.

I'm sure that the ASA secretly likes Ryanair—OK, perhaps not all of the time— as it has helped it create guidance in a multitude of areas including:

So what, if anything, can we learn from Ryanair's approach to PR?

Ryanair is a big airline with big resources behind it. In its 2013 first quarter it carried 23.2 million passengers; had a revenue of €1.342 billion; and a profit after tax of €78 million. It employs jolly clever lawyers to help it out should the worst happen.

If I were any other business, and particularly a smaller one, I would be much more wary. A scorched-earth PR model can easily result in trouble. Lawyers cost money. Far better to adhere to the various UK Advertising Codes than incur the wrath of the ASA. A poorly executed PR stunt can also open up liability in all manner of other areas such as defamation, misrepresentation, breach of intellectual property rights and so on and so forth ...

So take legal advice where appropriate and, depending on the circumstances, use the ASA's Copy Advice Team who can check how a prospective non-broadcast advertisement or multi-media concepts measure up against the UK Advertising Codes. The service is free or up to £300 (eg £250 plus VAT) if you want a 4 hour turnaround service.

So there should be no excuse really.

Sorry, I sounded a tad patronising then. 'Tis the lawyer in me. Can't be helped sometimes.

So in answer to the question: PR v the law. I think that the law wins. It usually does.

 * Click here if you want to read about Ryanair's views on the ASA. I don't think that Ryanair and the ASA get on all that well. Just a hunch.

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