Tech: Why socially toxic Ryanair must change tack

Controversial low-cost airline Ryanair's negative attitude to all aspects of digital except ticket sales is a fast track to creating a socially toxic brand on a global scale

One story in the past couple of weeks has leapt out as a case study for brands in how not to act in social media. It tells of a brand sticking its fingers in its ears and refusing to be told or to listen.

No surprise that the brand in question is everybody's favourite budget airline, Ryanair.

Three weeks ago it became the subject of a Facebook storm and, for once, that isn't hyperbole. It began after a woman who had been charged EUR300 by Ryanair for printing her six boarding passes at the airport posted a comment on Facebook about it. Admittedly the airline warns passengers about the charges, but they are widely viewed as excessive, money-making fees.

Suzy McLeod's comment read: 'When flying from Alicante to Bristol yesterday, I had previously checked in online but because I hadn't printed out the boarding passes, Ryanair charged me EUR60 per person!!! Meaning I had to pay EUR300 for them to print out a piece of paper! Please "like" if you think that's unfair :-('

Viral complaint

She probably expected a few hundred comments at most, but this single social-media seed grew into something mighty. McLeod's little post on a fake Ryanair page attracted not just a few hundred or thousand likes, but hundreds of thousands. It went viral and racked up more than 400,000 likes. It appeared to have become a lens that brought into sharp focus what so many feel about Ryanair. In addition to the 'likes' there were about 20,000 comments, most supporting her.

Ryanair's response? A statement to the press reminding passengers of its 'clearly outlined' 'terms and conditions'.

No message to say it was looking at the issue and no indication it was listening, as Ryanair doesn't do Facebook or Twitter. It doesn't do social - and, some would say, it doesn't do customer service.

This is the airline that famously said three years ago that it was 'Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy in corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won't be happening again'.

The airline remains true to its word. Why take the easy win when you can do it the hard way? Clearly this is a strategy that is paying off in helping to make Ryanair a socially toxic brand.

Drop in profits

Consider this. In July it was revealed that, while rival easyJet revised its projections upward, Ryanair posted a 29% drop in profits. This on the back of a 'six-fold increase in marketing spend per passenger'. Profits down, marketing up. Something is not working.

What many of the comments on McLeod's post have in common is that they are negative. That's thousands of comments amplified by the social web.

Of course, people have complained about Ryanair for years, and for years it could get away with ignoring such critics. Social media has changed that.

Ryanair is trying to be an analogue brand in a digital world. The web might be the way it chooses to sell tickets, but it seeks to ignore all other aspects of digital and social media - and it is failing. There is not a brand out there that can continue to act like this.

When hundreds of thousands or people are talking about you, the smart thing is to listen and engage.

Nonetheless, as social-media monitoring firm Brandwatch points out, it could be argued that this online incident won't damage Ryanair's social reputation; it is already poor.

Gordon MacMillan is social-media editor at the Brand Republic Group and editor of The Wall blog @thewalluk. Follow him on Twitter: @gordonmacmillan.

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