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Ryanair experiences severe turbulence

Budget airline Ryanair yesterday experienced a day of turbulence, when one of its flights from Athens to Vilnius was unexpectedly diverted at MiG-point to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where a number of passengers were removed from the plane before it was permitted to complete its journey to Lithuania.

Before we proceed with this blog examining Ryanair’s comms in response to these dramatic events, let’s take a couple of things as read: 1) Communicating during a crisis in which all of the relevant facts are outside of either your knowledge or control is challenging; 2) Communicating outside of your usual area of expertise is fraught with difficulty; and 3) Beyond having his passenger reservation details, nobody in Ryanair had ever heard of Roman Protasevich before yesterday. These caveats aside, Ryanair have nonetheless completely cocked up their response.

Protasevich is the ex-editor of the Nexta group, a media company which has been sharply critical of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and he was one of six or seven passengers (depending on media reports) who didn’t complete the journey to Vilnius, having been removed in Minsk according to eyewitnesses on the plane. Protasevich, witnesses said, told his fellow passengers he was ‘facing the death penalty’ in Belarus as he was escorted off. It’s chilling stuff. 

Not that you would know anything about any of that from Ryanair’s statement in response to yesterday’s hijacking, which was issued at approximately 8pm UK time on May 23:

As Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs noted on Twitter:

While it’s fair to say Ryanair didn’t understand the significance of Protasevich’s removal at the time he was removed, it did know he was removed, along with the other passengers who deplaned in Minsk (some of whom are rumoured to be KGB agents, according to media reports). That the airline’s statement not only neglected to mention this fact – which staff aboard would have clocked – is bad enough; but to state, as Ryanair did, that ‘authorities cleared the aircraft to “depart together with passengers and crew” is deliberately misleading given the absence of Protasevich and others. Or, as one observer noted:

The general rule of crisis communications is to communicate what you know when you know it, and to update regularly in response to events. Ryanair should have – at minimum – referenced the fact that some of the passengers were removed by the authorities in question before the plane was allowed to complete its journey.

The airline should also have offered more context about the events that forced its place to Minsk. The crew of the plane would have known about the fighter escort and a little bit of desk research on Twitter while the plane was grounded in Minsk would have told Ryanair corporate comms all they needed to know about Protasevich and his salience to the Lukashenko regime. 

Indeed, journalists and politicians of all description were all over the events from virtually the off, and long before Ryanair made its first statement. And while the airline’s corporate comms team is likely wary of straying into geopolitics, noting your concern over the apparent abduction of one of your passengers wouldn’t have been a major risk or ask. 

Indeed, Ryanair eventually updated their statement to do just that, albeit nearly 15 hours after their weak and incomplete initial statement, and many hours after the world’s media began covering the story obsessively:

The second statement is fine, but it’s late and ultimately unsatisfying. Airlines must be ready for any number of crises; that Ryanair failed to communicate the basics does not instill confidence they will be ready to serve their customers well when the next one inevitably arises. As one user wrote on Twitter:

And while random Twitter comments do not represent considered opinion, the fact the above anonymous tweet has over 2,000 likes indicates people aren’t impressed with the robustness of Ryanair’s response. 

That said, an airline’s bread and butter are fares and with holiday season soon to be amongst us again, it feels safe to assume Ryanair’s missteps on Minsk won’t be punished, at least not if £20 returns to Tenerife are put on offer.

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