Leadership and Grounded Interviews

Airport conversation

Leadership and Grounded Interviews

If you were watching BBC Breakfast this morning you would have seen the interview with Ryanair’s Chairman Michael O’Leary (see 2h 21mins 29s in) after the company announced overnight that they would be cutting 3,000 jobs.  You would expect an interview on the back of that news to put the face of Ryanair on the backfoot; but au contraire. O’Leary crafted the interview to suit his agenda from the outset.  Whether you are a fan or not, you cannot help but admire the way he performed: showing true leadership.

O’Leary was possibly more ‘on brand’ than I have ever seen him. He looked a little dishevelled, conveying how hard he is working in these tough times – aligning himself with his staff. The Ryanair banners behind him look liked they’d been ordered from Vistaprint overnight for under £50 a pop. None of this was by accident of course: he had one intention and he totally nailed it, as you would expect from him.

In true O’Leary fashion, he didn’t shy away from any of the most difficult questions out there:

Are these pilot redundancies fair?

Is it true that you may be closing regional operations?

When would people get their refunds?

He answered them as best he could and had the confidence to admit that he didn’t have all the answers yet.  Being able to stand up in front of a live audience of millions and admit this in a time of national (global!) crisis exudes confidence.

In answering question one, he did as much internal communication as external by talking about the conditions that have led them to lay off some pilots.  He spoke directly to shareholders and his own workers.

On point three, he used data (10,000 refunds a week) to rebut the questions on why it was taking so long to get refunds. Directing his answers to frustrated customers he may have even uttered the words ‘unprecedented conditions’ when asked why it couldn’t be done any quicker.

He spoke candidly to every audience he intended to.  Subtly, he spoke to the most important audience of all.  The Government.

There is no doubt in my mind that he did the interview to deliberately NOT ask for Government funds directly.  He has witnessed, as we all have, the backlash Richard Branson has received for asking for a bail-out for Virgin.  His communication strategy is clear: let the Government come to him.

The implied threat of the withdrawal from regional airports would undermine local economies.  Ask anyone in Crawley right now – Gatwick, reeling from the lack of work today, has been dealt an added blow with British Airways’ announcement yesterday that it might not return come the end of lockdown.

O’Leary wants to position discussions with local and central government so that the airports his airline uses get the support that they are so desperate for.  There is no doubt in my mind that some of the ministers who will be on a call with him in the not too distant future sat up and paid attention.

The interview was only five minutes long and a masterclass in how to use the media to push your agenda for your business, your shareholders, your employees and your industry.

Love O’Leary or loathe him, we need to see more of this kind of leadership over the coming weeks and months. Your people deserve it, your stakeholders demand it.

Whether or not you like the straight-talking Michael O’Leary – when he talks industry listens.

Whilst the media heavily depended on Sir Martin Sorrell for comment over the years, he seems to have avoided the news agenda this cycle.  There is now space for a new expert or ten to fill that airtime. Could it be you flying high in the media next week?