'At the height of the snow, five people were rescued up in Sally Gap because they had heard on the news that it was impassable and had decided to drive up to have a look. Then when they got stuck they called a friend. He drove up to help them and got stuck too.
For the most part, though, Irish drivers behaved very responsibly and we got through December with a relatively small number of collisions. My phone was like a switchboard and we were constantly briefing media organisations and radio stations about the state of the roads. Everyone was interested on what it was like out there for drivers and lots of people wanted technical advice about driving or managing their vehicles.
I originally trained as a journalist and wanted to be a broadcast journalist. Then I was employed by the AA to be one of their roadwatch broadcasters. I was eventually given the public relations or spokesman job and that's the role I'm best known for. They call me director of policy now, but none of that matters during a weather crisis when it's all about answering phones and questions.
I've been here for 20 years now, and these big traffic events happen from time to time. In November 2009 it was all about flooding in Galway and parts of Tipperary and Cork. And that made for pretty busy conditions for our rescue service and for AA Roadwatch. But what's interesting is that if you wind the clock back four or five years the traffic problems weren't so weather-related. People were much more concerned with traffic back then – a minor accident on the M50 could delay 15,000 motorists. It was a regular feature. That's improved a little bit in the last couple of years, partly because of the economic downturn, but more significantly it's because infrastructure has improved. I remember relatively minor incidents strangling the whole of Dublin city, when a truck broken down by the Point Depot could cause massive congestion throughout large sections of the city.
If anything, the snow made people more understanding. Our rescue vans were out on the roads and whereas in normal circumstances people expect to have us there ASAP, there was a lot of patience and good humour during the snow. People who called us would say 'I'm at home so don't worry about me, tend to people stuck out on the road' or 'I'm at my sister's house, I'm warm and have a cup of coffee – get to me when you're ready'. It was remarkable the amount of solidarity people showed. An event like that does tend to bring out the best in people. And people were vocally appreciative of the help and advice we gave."
'When something like last month's snow happens, it's like a button is pressed. Suddenly the phone lights up like a Christmas tree and there are calls from every media organisation you can think of. I was working all hours. I'd get up at four in the morning to get an update from the duty managers in Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports. I'd put that up on the web and send it out to the news desks and then go back to bed and try to relax for an hour before getting up to do the rounds of Morning Ireland, Newstalk... whatever else came in. I really was on radio the whole time.
The worst day for me was the Thursday before Christmas. The previous day, everyone had been in at the national task force meeting and Met Éireann had given an update and no significant snowfall was expected. There was a great sense of optimism. We'd put on extra capacity. Everyone was working together. We felt like we could get everyone home for Christmas. And then I got up on Thursday and looked out the window and a snowflake fell. I optimistically thought 'Okay, it'll only be for a few minutes' but my heart sank with every flake. Within half-an-hour there were blizzard- like conditions and the runway had to be taken out of operation. I was doing a piece for David Harvey on 4FM and he could tell I wasn't my usual upbeat self. He said 'How are things Siobhan?' and I was looking at the snowfall and just said [in a sad voice] 'They're not good...'
On Christmas Day, I was due to cook for my family. I had eight for dinner, but my mother also brought two unexpected visitors – two Spanish students who had nowhere else to go. I was taking calls right through Christmas. Usually, Christmas Eve is my favourite day, but there was a very different feeling at the airport this year, because there were so many people worried about getting home. Some airlines struggled with de-icing problems, so some people were angry because I was saying the airport was operational, which it was, so they couldn't get their heads around the fact that some aircraft weren't flying. There was one flight in particular, a US Airways flight, and its passengers spent eight hours at Dublin airport before it was cancelled. I was personally dealing with people on that flight and their family members. You do feel terrible when you can't do more.
I'm 26 years in the airport. I started in the last recession in 1984. I came straight out of secretarial school and started off as a secretary in what was called the contracts department at the time. I applied for various internal roles and eventually got a role in the PR department. I remember the first live radio interview I did. It was with Marian Finucane in her old morning slot and I was terrified. In a way, you should never lose that nervousness, because people are relying on what you tell them and you're never more important than the information you're giving out.
Last year was certainly interesting. We started and ended the year with snow and there was a volcano which caused massive disruption in the middle. Sometimes you think you've seen it all, but who knows what strange events this year will bring?"
'It's not ideal being the bearer of bad news, but it has to be done. During the snow I'd be up at 5.30 ready to get press releases to Morning Ireland and the Newstalk morning show. This time around, we also had daily media briefings at around 11am with all the agencies. Then you'd prepare for the lunchtime shows before heading back to the office to do the drivetime shows and maybe the TV news as well. At that point, you might get a little bit of a break before the calls started again. There were a couple of evenings where we had to finish services a bit earlier coming out of Dublin and we had to let people know about that.
After the flooding in Cork in November 2009 and the snow in January, I could see why people were saying 'oh not this again!' But I think when people could see how hard we were working they were very supportive. This might sound like spinning, but we really did receive a lot of compliments from the public following these events. Before doing this I was a journalist. I did the course in Rathmines College of Commerce and worked for local newspapers, edited a number of magazines and freelanced. After a while I wanted a change, so I joined Wilson Hartnell PR where I was a corporate public relations consultant and advised companies on crisis communications. I worked there for about five years and I've been with Bus Éireann for about two-and-a-half years.
In my job, you're potentially on call 24/7. We're a transport company so there's always a chance there'll be an incident with one of our vehicles. That's been quite rare, thankfully, but if a call comes at four in the morning you have to be prepared. The bad weather did ratchet things up. I'm married with an 18-month-old son, so 'snow' is definitely a four-letter word in our house. But I have a very understanding wife and I started this job with my eyes wide open. I wasn't anticipating two snow events in a 12- month period but if you're signed up you soldier on."
'Some people objected to us saying on the day before Christmas Eve that it was just a 'flurry' of snow, but I'm not Evelyn Cusack saying this is officially 'a flurry' or this is officially 'a blizzard'. On those days, we had intermittent, heavy snow and but in between there was bright sunshine. That day, we were saying there should have been a quicker response to clearing the snow. We were running out of time to get people home for Christmas.
We're used to being the bad guy. During the ash cloud, every airline was hoping Michael O'Leary would say that we weren't going to be carrying the can financially for the cancellations. We said it, then we backtracked. We wanted a debate about the legislation and for five minutes we got to talk about that, but for the other 23 hours and 55 minutes we got very bad publicity. Since then, other airlines have been reprimanded on the issue, so all these airlines with a less-confrontational image were also trying to avoid the payments.
We understand our place in the market. With Ryanair, there seems no room in the press for positive stories. So we have to take advantage of the negative stories and do the talk shows and get our opportunity to explain.
Before Ryanair, I was with PR firm MRPA Kinman, where I worked with a lot of big companies. At one point, I worked closely with Sean FitzPatrick on a keynote speech. When Anglo first started getting into trouble, they kept showing this file footage of Sean FitzPatrick walking down the street with me beside him. People rang me asking if I'd left Ryanair! I expect to see myself on Reeling in the Years some day, walking down the road with Sean.
I got this job because I heard they were looking for someone and I rang Michael and told him that I had spent four years working at KPMG, training at the same desk he had trained on, except I stayed until I got the exams, whereas he left before. I told him I had changed career and was in communications and could I come in and speak to him. I ended up getting the job.
At Ryanair, there's no waste. One of the staple approaches of the Irish PR community is to get Irish models lying on your product. Within about two hours of being here I realised that that wouldn't be the case with Ryanair. We don't pay models. We get a good-looking girl from cabin crew or we get Michael to pull a funny face.
When I came on board, I wanted to soften the image a little bit. I quickly made it clear I wasn't going to be dressing in tutus and running down Trafalgar Square to get publicity or pulling funny faces like Michael (although Michael assures me that that's not a funny face – it's just his face). If I do sound like Michael sometimes, it's because I'm delivering a Ryanair message and every company has a style and voice. Ryanair is very distinctive."
'I became Salt Man during the big snow. The NRA was responsible for centrally purchasing salt for the country's national routes and all anyone cared about was how much salt there was, where the salt was, and where it could be distributed. So I was Salt Man. I even read a book on salt. Did you know the Celtic people were named after the Roman word for salt-miners? That's part of the job – one day you're an expert on public private partnerships – the next you're an expert on salt.
The very first statement I made during the snow event, which infuriated a number of people – along with my American twang – was that we had purchased salt for the national routes, which are only 5% of the road network but carry 50% of the traffic. But at no point was the NRA directed to purchase salt for local and regional roads. When I said this people just went apeshit, but it was the truth.
While there was a lot of vitriol and frustration from people, a lot of them appreciated the fact that we were being straight-up and consistent with them. I think people acclimatised to the conditions, pun intended. There was a lot of solidarity. One of our key messages was 'take public transport' and a lot of people changed their routine so that they were no longer an individual in a car but part of a bus or train, seeing people in their neighbourhood they may not have seen before. It re-established a sense of community I think. And I say this from personal experience. As I cleared my drive my neighbours would make me cups of tea. I've never been offered so many cups of tea in my life.
I'm originally from Ennis, but my family went over to Boston in the last great recession in the '80s. And Boston has severe winters. They spend millions and millions on equipment and materials and yet they still have shutdowns. Every summer I would come home to Ireland. I studied history and English before doing a masters in communications in Boston – communications management, communications psychology... basically propaganda. I ended up working on the Big Dig in Boston – the largest urban infrastructural project in American history. A $14.6bn project, it was the equivalent of turning a city upside down and inside out. It involved a massive amount of media, community relations, long nights and no weekends for years. It was filled with overruns and controversy and it became a bit of a political punch bag but I was able to sell it as a great American achievement.
The Irish public are, in many ways, better informed than Americans. People here are interested in knowing as much as possible in as much detail as possible, and you can't just gloss over things. Someone in my position has to be comfortable being a punching bag. There will be ordinary people who'll be upset and who'll have personal stories and you'll have to disagree directly with them and state a line that's contrary to what they might want.
On the other hand, I loved the fact that Gift Grub did me [Mario Rosenstock did an impression of O'Neill on Today FM at the height of the crisis]. I was getting texts from people all that morning and I didn't know what they were talking about. Then Matt Cooper played it for me when I was on The Last Word. I think he really caught my passion and my American twang!"
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