When Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert, resulting in the death of one of the test pilots, Richard Branson’s space tourism venture looked to be in jeopardy. But it is said that what you do and say in the hours immediately after an incident sets the tone by which an organisation will be judged. A highly experienced spokesman, he embodies his brand and, with the happy gift of empathy, Branson managed to turn a potentially reputation-damaging incident into an example of best practice crisis management. His first words and actions struck just the right note.
Virgin’s crisis management has been exemplary. In keeping with current trends, Branson’s first comments came via Twitter and later a blog. He paid tribute to “brave pilots and families of those affected” and made sympathy for the human tragedy a central part of his message. He reacted quickly and positively. He was empathetic and visible. He flew straight to California to visit the scene.
In PR terms, Branson benefits from several positives. Firstly, he knows what he is doing. He had successfully handled the tragedy of the Virgin train crash in Cumbria in 2007, after which The Independent editor-in-chief Simon Kelner described his handling of the crisis as ‘genius PR’. Secondly, the press likes him. When he says he is sorry he is believed. When he praises the heroism of the individuals involved, they do not seek a hidden agenda. He is given the benefit of the doubt.
Compare his handling of the crisis with the way Malaysian airlines issued a text message to the relatives of passengers of flight MH370, after weeks of waiting, telling them bleakly that the aeroplane was assumed to have been lost with no survivors.
Or consider the way Eurostar dealt with an incident in December 2009 when passengers were trapped underground. The company’s CEO produced a short adequate video response, but the effect was undermined completely by pre-scheduled cheerful social media messages (instead of information for stranded passengers) being posted at regular intervals throughout the passengers’ underground ordeal.
Lastly, the Virgin media machine brought out some vocal supporters of Virgin Galactic. At the time of the crash, 700 bookings had been taken for flights due to begin next year. The robust defence of Virgin’s innovative venture into commercial space travel from its own brand advocates will go a long way to keeping the project on course.
Few companies have a CEO with Richard Branson’s natural flair for crisis management but everyone can make preparations which will help them to cope. Studying a master at work is a good starting point.