Michael O’Leary, the Mourinho of aviation, isn’t so special anymore

What better way for Ryanair to distract from its mounting problems than to ban the media from its agm?

 Ryanair boss  Michael O’Leary. Like Mourinho  he  has blazed through his career with an aura of invincibility, mounted on a steed of arrogance while lancing his enemies with gems from his oratorical arsenal. Photograph: PA Wire

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. Like Mourinho he has blazed through his career with an aura of invincibility, mounted on a steed of arrogance while lancing his enemies with gems from his oratorical arsenal. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Michael O’Leary would never admit it but the Ryanair chief executive has a lot in common these days with José Mourinho, the snarling, paranoid, embattled manager of Manchester United. They are no longer special ones.

O’Leary considers himself a Manchester City fan. As he looks in the mirror in the morning it must be horrifying to be confronted with a vision of the United manager scowling back, tousling his salt and pepper hair and plotting to silence his critics.

Ryanair’s quarterly profits are down 20 per cent, it is consumed with strikes, its reputation was sullied by cancellations and its share price was 50 per cent higher last summer. O’Leary can’t simply pull a funny face and sing “championes” back at his detractors anymore.

He might have paler skin and more freckles, but there has always been a touch of the Portuguese tactician about O’Leary. Warriors in their field but committed family men, there is less than two years between them, O’Leary the senior aged 57. But their parallels run closer than age or family.

Like Mourinho, O’Leary has blazed through his career with an aura of invincibility, mounted on a steed of arrogance while lancing his enemies with gems from his oratorical arsenal. They’re both quote gold, masters of media manipulation. The impact wears out eventually, however, especially when the invincibility evaporates.

Both have always revelled in horrifying critics. Mourinho, who loves making football purists puke, has threatened not just to park a bus against attacking teams, but to “park a plane” if he has to.

Manchester United manager José Mourinho: he loves to make football purists puke. Photograph: Getty Images
Manchester United manager José Mourinho: he loves to make football purists puke. Photograph: Getty Images

Similarly, O’Leary took the shibboleth that “the customer is always right”, and danced a jig on it: “You’re not getting a refund so f*** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories.”

And, yes, both men are also soaked in success, having conquered Europe.

Under pressure

But now their critics are rounding on them. Their worlds have changed, but doubts remain that they have changed sufficiently with it. Wounded from recent revelations of their mortality and fighting to prove they still have what it takes, O’Leary and Mourinho are under pressure to show they are still special. The strain is telling.

O’Leary, probably harking back to some glorious time years ago when he stuck it to some journalist, has banned the press from Ryanair’s upcoming agm. What a pity. It would have been far more fun to see him channelling Mourinho and walking out of his press conference holding his fingers in the air – “our profits are FIVE times bigger than Aer Lingus’s” – and snarling about “respect, respect, respect, man, respect...”

When Mourinho stormed out of his press conference in such a fashion a fortnight ago, some saw it as a signal that he was losing the plot. But it was really a classic distraction technique to cover up his team’s – and his own – failings.

So, too, with O’Leary’s media ban. His airline, unionised against his will and throbbing with industrial unrest, is facing criticism over its shoddy corporate governance and a return to anti-consumer policies such as charging for the 10kg wheelie cases that customers bring for free as hand luggage on every other airline.

What better way for Ryanair to distract from its mounting problems than to ban the media, forcing all those navel-gazing, chest-thumping hacks to write about their sodding selves instead of O’Leary’s mistakes.

Ludicrous

There is no other explanation for it. The one proffered by Ryanair this week was ludicrous in the extreme. “We wish to allow shareholders to discuss all matters freely with the board without these discussions being distorted for PR purposes.”

What does “distorted for PR purposes” even mean?

Ryanair is the one that engages in public relations, not the media. Financial journalists spend their days trying to get past PR people if they can get away with it. Some journalists may or may not “distort” things, but if they do they don’t do it for mysterious “PR purposes”.

Occasionally they may focus in on something that has happened (often negative) to feed a strand within a narrative. But that isn’t distortion. It’s how you tell a story.

Ryanair makes it sound like it is protecting shareholders, nurturing their right to “discuss matters freely”. In my experience the sort of shareholders who go to agms are at their most free with the floor microphone in their hands, winking over at the journalists as they excoriate the board in performative fashion.

Who really knows why O’Leary has banned media, but here is one thing we can say for sure: organisations that pull such childish stunts are never happy places. They only do it when they’re riven with chaos. ‘Poverty wages’

Back in Mourinho’s world, Newcastle United, under the ownership of Mike Ashley, is famous for its periodic media bans. Look at what a paragon of stability and happiness that club is.

McDonald’s banned the press from its 2015 agm, but only when it was sheltering from a campaign in the US against “poverty wages”.

Outsourcing firm Capita banned reporters from its annual meeting this summer. But when you look at its recent performance you can see why some call it “Crapita”.

In practical terms, the banning of media isn’t the most important thing: journalists will adapt by either obtaining a Ryanair share to allow them attend or else by asking a shareholder to record proceedings for them. Rather it is the brittle, paranoid mindset suggested by such a petty act that is most revealing.

Unlike Mourinho, however, it seems O’Leary is capable of self-deprecation.

“I am no longer in the position given the job I’ve done over the last 12 months to be haranguing others about the job they’re doing,” he told Bloomberg this week, when invited to criticise failings at rival airlines. “I have enough to do myself at Ryanair, and clearly I need to improve my own performance.”

Then again, his mea cupla sounded so overwrought that it would make you doubt its full sincerity. You might even conclude that O’Leary was distorting it for PR purposes.

FOOTNOTES

– Eir has finally hung up on its call centre provider, Indian-run outsourcing firm HCL Technologies. It is taking the function back in-house after months of wrangling with HCL over allegations of poor customer service. About 950 staff will return to the Eir fold, although 650 must leave Dublin for facilities in Cork, Limerick and Sligo if they want to keep their jobs.

One former HCL worker contacted us to describe his time working for HCL on the Eir contract. He explained that HCL is paid per call answered. “We had it drilled into us that every single call, no matter the issue, had to be no more than 180 seconds [until] you put the phone down. You then got 30 seconds to make any notes, try to fix anything, and you had to be back answering calls again.”

That doesn’t leave a lot of time to solve customers’ issues.

Funnily enough, at last year’s Customer Contact Management Association awards, seemingly the Oscars of the Irish call centre industry, HCL and Eir were prominent. They were jointly nominated for “best customer experience” award and their complaints’ team was nominated for “team of the year”.

***********

– In among the returns this month to the lobbying register is a meeting between rainwater harvesting consultant Ollan Herr and Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party. Herr was pitching an idea to make fertiliser from human urine. “Eventually when world resources are completely depleted many will be using urine anyway as the basis of a low-cost fertiliser. Human urine, however, also contains ingested pharmaceuticals that must be removed,” Herr warned Ryan.

Politicians: they’re always taking the piss.

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