Sir Richard Branson is accustomed to the media spotlight.
However, media attention can become a bad habit for executives.
As a world-famous entrepreneur, Branson boasts a list of impressive accomplishments. However, his commercial spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, is not
yet one of them.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
exploded in mid-air on Oct. 31, 2014, during a test flight. One pilot was killed and another was severely injured after ejecting.
Members of the news media were unforgiving.
The Washington Post described the catastrophe as "the most visible failure of the biggest test program in space aviation history." The Wall Street Journal reported:
"Richard Branson's projections on launch ran counter to technical capabilities...the craft’s progress had been plagued by technical problems that few
outsiders knew about."
Virgin Galactic tried to downplay the disaster by calling it an "in-flight anomaly." Many thought this characterization was flippant, considering the loss
of life and millions of dollars spent on the risky project—which ended catastrophically.
Branson later held a press conference to minimize the bad news, apologizing and expressing remorse to the families of the dead and injured employees.
Repairing the brand’s image
On Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, Virgin Galactic held a media event in the Mojave Desert to announce the new and improved SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity. It’s unclear who Branson was trying to unite: his damaged company, the global media and public, the aerospace industry or all of them.
The rollout of VSS Unity featured Harrison Ford, as well as famed cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Several
Hollywood actors, including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio bought seats on the ship. Professor Hawking was also signed up, CNN reported.
With prestige is on the line and mounting pressure, Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of VSS Unity failed to live up to its hype.
Here are five lessons PR pros can learn from the lukewarm launch—and Branson’s questionable communications decisions:
1. Properly time your efforts.
It’s mystifying why Branson chose to announce his news on Friday; as a result, the VSS Unity received relatively little media coverage.
PR people know that Friday is the best day to release the worst news. News consumption is at its lowest Friday evenings and Saturdays. Many brand
managers take advantage of the trend and release bad news and unflattering data reports in large document dumps, hoping it gets overlooked in the mix of
On Feb. 19, headlines were dominated by the presidential race, Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the looming legal battle between Apple and the FBI. The
news about Virgin Galactic was not widely reported.
If Branson wanted banner headlines and widespread coverage of VSS Unity, Friday was the worst day to make the announcement. Make sure you
don’t bury a media coverage opportunity by picking the wrong time to announce your news, launch or feature.
2. Don’t try to control journalists.
Branson might have been trying to avoid headlines while getting positive coverage. He probably reasoned that his event, buttressed by media coverage, could
build momentum for the company, shareholders and stakeholders.
Yet, PR pros know that you can’t control members of the news media. You can try to positively influence a story, but the effort is usually futile, unless
you’ve already built strong bonds with journalists. This is rare in the digital age.
It's important to teach executives that editors and producers make final editorial decisions. Most PR pros can only do so much to influence a story.
3. Set reasonable expectations.
One would think that after a heavily publicized disaster, Branson would minimize expectations.
PR pros and execs should under-promise and over-deliver when working with reporters. By holding a media event, Sir Richard raised expectations about the
new spaceship before any test flights were completed.
The event’s reviews weren't all flattering. The Washington Post described the rollout of VSS Unity as being, “Feted appropriately in a massive
hangar with pumping music, swirling lights and, of course, champagne.”
Media coverage was premature and over-hyped. No one doubted that Branson would build a new spacecraft, but the real issue is whether it works.
Consider a closed media event to celebrate accomplishments and milestones that may not be ready for the public. Execs, avoid the temptation to shine a
spotlight on your ego, and wait until you have real news to share.
4. Showcase your employees.
Branson should have not only celebrated his employees in an open media event—but put them front and center.
RELATED: Innovate or disappear. Sharpen your PR prowess with pros from CNN Digital, The New York Times and more.
Why not let workers tell their stories to reporters while also advocating as brand ambassadors on social media? It’s no secret that reporters seek out
unique human-interest stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
Virgin Galactic employees have good stories to tell about rebuilding one of the world’s first commercial spaceships while dealing with the devastating
emotional fallout of the failed test flight.
The proliferation of social media means that companies can deploy their employees to enhance the brand image and build public trust. Putting workers in the
media spotlight boosts employee engagement, company loyalty and job satisfaction.
Savvy execs and PR pros know that their workforce is their organizations’ greatest asset. It goes beyond a human capital asset. Workers should be viewed as
strategic PR assets, not just cogs in the machine.
5. Make sure you’re ready before the big moment.
In PR—as in life—timing is everything. Why hold a self-congratulatory media event before any test flights even occurred? Why the rush?
Don’t rush things. Do what Branson—and his advisors—probably didn’t, and ask yourself if your product or service is ready to draw worldwide media attention
before showing it to the public.
The stakes in commercial spaceflight are sky high.
They go beyond space tourism: The goals of the aerospace industry and NASA include establishing a colony on the moon and sending a manned mission to Mars.
These are goals with no guaranteed outcome. Perhaps Branson sought publicity because he doesn’t want to be perceived as taking a back seat in the
commercial space race to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
However, if Branson aspires to "boldly go where no man has gone before," then he should learn
from his mistakes. PR pros would be wise to do the same.
David B. Grinberg is an independent writer and strategic communications advisor with 25 years in the White House, Congress and national news media.
Connect with him on Twitter, Medium, beBee and LinkedIn. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.