Ryanair on Twitter: Sticks and stones may break your bones but it's tweets that really hurt a business

O'Leary's performance on the social media site was a disaster from start to finish

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I have said previously that I believe the advent of Twitter to be the most significant media development of my lifetime. As an effective tool of communication, there is very little to match it. As a bona vide news source, it is as potent as networks that have been around for centuries. And as a means of promulgating a message, it has the benefit of being a cost-effective way of reaching a large number of people in a short space of time.

I vaguely admire those who have steadfastly remained outside its reach, although I have noticed that, even if they don't tweet themselves, these refuseniks maintain a presence on the network - a form of cyber-voyeurism - so that they can see at all times what's going on. However, the one thing Twitter doesn't do is humour. Or irony. Or gentle sarcasm. Or indeed any of the nuances of conversation that require tone, context or more than 140 characters to explain.

So my advice is that it's best not to play Twitter for laughs, unless you are an extremely skilled writer of pithy epithets. Which, I'm afraid, Michael O'Leary just isn't. The boss of Ryanair, whose previous rejoinders include “what part of 'no refund' don't you understand” and “the best thing you could do to environmentalists is shoot them”, took the extraordinary step of prostrating himself in front of the tweeting classes yesterday and inviting them to throw metaphorical rocks at him.

Whatever possessed Mr O'Leary I don't know. But I can speculate. His PR advisors will have dragged him kicking and screaming to the screen. Here's a quick way to change your image, they'll have said. Ryanair might have a reputation for ignoring the complaints of passengers with disabilities, but then there's the boss, all larky and approachable, personally answering his customers' questions. Because that's the thing with Twitter. It is, by and large, the authentic voice of the person doing the tweeting.

Thus, the first response from Mr O'Leary to a female questioner - “Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL” - set the tone for the rest of the exchanges, drawing immediately this retort: “How appropriate is it for an airline CEO to be a sexist pig?” And so it went on, O'Leary revealing a loose grasp of the customs and practices of Twitter - “I only just found out what a hashtag is”, he tweeted - and his inquisitors becoming ever more enraged at the flippant tone of his answers. Someone asked whether he was thinking of charging Ryanair passengers for breathing: a levy per inhalation perhaps? “Great idea,” replied O'Leary. “Have a team workin' (sic) on it as we breathe”. Cue righteous indignation.

Any attempt at a joke came over as crass, or crude, or both. It was a disaster from start to finish. British Gas ploughed the same furrow last week, attempting to justify their price hike, and with similar results. It didn't change anyone's perception of Ryanair, and O'Leary - who is an entertaining, inspiring public speaker - was as embarrassing as a dad at the disco. MOL? LOL more like.

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