It goes without saying that putting a positive spin on things can deliver big benefits. If it goes without saying, however, then how come so many captains of industry get PR so spectacularly wrong? If you look back through the annals of marketing time, the records throw up sensational PR gaffes which have astounded and amused in equal measure.
Who can forget Gerald Ratner announcing to the world in 1991 that his brand’s products were ‘total crap’ and, in doing so, wiped £500M of the company’s value over night. Or how about Abercrombie and Fitch’s high profile launch of racy thong underwear…for 10 year old girls. Heathrow’s glittering Terminal 5 was opened with a blaze of publicity and excitement and in its first few days of operation saw 216 flights cancelled and 15,000 bags delayed. Bridgestone’s recall of 6.5 million tyres; Hoover’s £48M airline ticket to the States; BP Chief Executives going sailing while his company was pumping vast quantities of oil into the Gulf of Mexico…the how-not-to-do-PR list is littered with outrageous ineptitude.
PR can be a treacherous area for those who don’t adhere to the rules of engagement. Good PR is worth its weight in gold and its ability to significantly bolster both consumer exposure and brand image is well documented.
Take the Virgin Group, for example. .
Here is a company which has excelled at putting themselves in the public eye with clever, organized PR; driven by an owner who has always understood the power of sensationalizing a product message.
When Richard Branson jumped from small, Notting Hill record shop proprietor to global record label magnate-in-waiting with the launch of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ in 1973, it seems he had a clear idea then how to take the power of publicity and use it to his, and his artists’, benefit. When EMI and A&M proved unable to cope with the building momentum of the Sex Pistols, Branson’s Virgin label quickly snapped them up and delivered one of the most memorable PR stunts in music history. Who can forget the band’s immortal boat trip on the Thames on June 7th 1977? Playing ‘God Save the Queen’ just two days away from Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee procession gave the Sex Pistols unprecedented coverage – particularly following the high profile arrests made by the Met Police, and resulted in the single going straight to the number two spot in the charts. (Conspiracy theorists claim Rod Stewart was held at Number 1 to prevent a ‘scandal’)
This demonstrated the significant value of smart PR to Branson and, as such, it has been a core element to his business strategy and marketing success since.
As the Virgin brand grew it began to collect inventory – a radio, an airline, a train, a fizzy drink, a way to communicate and so on. Each new incantation of the brand was delivered with promotion, advertising and always with a fanfare of publicity through some quirky PR event which captured media attention and the public’s imagination. As Virgin blossomed, so did the persona of Branson and it wouldn’t be long before he became a central figure within each of these PR gambits. It could be argued his self-inclusion was the misguided narcissism of a CEO desperate for the limelight; but Branson was not just an entrepreneur, he was also a true adventurer.
When the ‘Virgin Atlantic Flyer’, the largest hot air balloon ever built, crossed the Atlantic in 1985 in record time, this PR stunt didn’t smack of glorification for its owner…it smacked of originality and a big chunk of bravery. If anyone doubted this, Branson’s efforts to circumnavigate the Earth in the 90’s was boy’s own stuff! His ballooning feats gave him credibility…but what he also had was column inches: loads of them. All adding power to his Virgin brand and its ever-growing list of products: brand image and desirability driven not through traditional paid-for advertising but by the ability to make people get emotionally involved through the spirited actions of one man.
Many feel Branson has established himself as PR royalty: king of the publicity stunt. The approach he’s adopted hasn’t always been something from the Eagle Comic and Branson has often chosen a lighter approach when selling his company: dressing up in bridal gear for Virgin Brides; showing off his backside and fashioning himself as a Zulu Warrior for Virgin Atlantic; driving an armoured tank down Fifth Avenue in New York and aiming shots at Pepsi and Coke signs for Virgin Cola. But it’s the daredevil stuff which really gets the consumers going and the press love to report another Branson bungey-jump or him driving a car across the Channel: it sells as many Sun newspapers as it does Virgin mobile phones.
Of course, when you get it so right every time, there’s always the chance it can go horribly wrong. When Virgin America’s reservation system went ga-ga in 2011 after the brand had launched its new strapline, “we’re shaping up our back end”, it showed how consumer opinion can quickly change. Virgin remained defiant and maintained there was no problem as customers were blogging the issues around the world. No amount of brand coolness takes away a bad customer experience and lessons needed to be learnt.
For a company like Virgin, where image is everything, they were quickly back on track as they do understand if you’re going to tell everybody how good you are…and you’re going to shout…well, then, you’d better be able to back it up.
Virgin, and Mr. Branson’s, PR stands as a benchmark to others. From the shocking to the spirited, there barely seems a time when the bearded one hasn’t been all over our chip paper. Since the police raided his shop in London to tear down a ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ poster in the window, Branson has championed the power of PR.
Is there such a thing as bad PR? Yes there is. That’s why Virgin do it right.
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