The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ryanair: Passenger’s racist tirade offers case study for airlines on how not to deal with a PR disaster

A man yelled racist slurs at a black woman and refused to sit next to her on a Ryanair flight traveling from Barcelona to London on Oct. 19. (Video: David Lawrence via Storyful)

It’s bad enough that a major airline such as Ryanair had the victim of a racist tirade change seats rather than bounce her abuser or make him move. But it’s also astounding that the airline has all but failed to respond to outcry over the incident in a way that reassures customers this wasn’t business as usual.

In the days since a video surfaced showing a Ryanair passenger subjecting another to a racist verbal assault, the discount airline has issued a terse public statement saying that the matter was referred to local authorities. But there’s no sign the airline has apologized to the elderly black woman who endured the rant. The top postings on its website are a new promotion for cheap seats and an earnings report showing the company’s profits have declined. Ryanair’s Twitter feed contains an alert about its new baggage policy.

Ryanair passenger who yelled racist insults at another passenger is allowed to keep his seat while his victim has to move

Meanwhile, some people are calling for a boycott of the airline, and social media is bubbling with hashtags such as #ryanairracist.

Experts on corporate-image crisis management said Monday they are stunned by the airline’s flat-footed response to a PR disaster.

“I wish I could say I was astounded by their horrendous response. Unfortunately, far too many organizations miss out on the three most important components of crisis communications,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. “You can’t just sit out an incident like this without responding with compassion, confidence and competence — the three C’s of crisis communication."

Compassion speaks for itself, he said. But he added that the company should also state its core beliefs, explaining how its policies reflect those beliefs and signaling that it’s taking action to correct the situation, he said. None of that has happened.

“They’ve come across with zero compassion, no sense of confidence that they’re on top of the situation, and, clearly, the world is concluding they responded incompetently,” Bernstein said.

Carreen Winters, chief strategy officer at the public relations firm MWWPR, said that at this point, a public apology isn’t going to cut it, either, because it’s not clear the airline has even apologized to the victim, who was identified as Delsie Gayle, 77. In an interview with ITV, Gayle said she and her daughter were returning from a vacation to mark the anniversary of the death of Gayle’s husband. She also told the news organization that she hadn’t heard from Ryanair since the incident.

“Before they issue an apology to the public, they need to make things right with the customer,” Winters said. “Because issuing an apology publicly when they’ve not communicated with the customer is going to open them up to a whole lane of criticism. Then they can apologize to the public. The public is very forgiving when they understand why a mistake happened.”

But it’s not clear yet what the airline’s policies on such situations are and whether those policies were followed, or even whether the airline has reached out to the victim, Winters said.

“The reason we don’t know is Ryanair is not telling us anything,” she said.

If anything, Winters said, the episode also points up the tricky line that flight crews have to follow these days maintaining order in crowded cabins. Some flight crews have been criticized for taking action against unruly passengers that’s perceived as excessive, while others have been criticized for not protecting travelers from other passengers who are unruly or abusive. The standards and expectations seem to be evolving at a time when social media can be used to hold airlines accountable for bad judgment one way or the other, Winters said. And how the company handles the fallout can be as critical as the event itself.

“The ones that are handled well are the ones we don’t remember,” Winters said.

Read more Tripping:

TSA goes for guns and money

Scooters return to San Francisco

Manspreading, accident videos, guns: Here are some of the things people wanted Metro records on