Branson beats Bezos to space. It had all the elements of a great story.
In an unprecedented feat, billionaire Sir Richard Branson traveled to space, just ahead of rival billionaire Jeff Bezos. The adventure-seeking, image-conscious, 70-year-old entrepreneur even biked to work on launch day, dismounting his sleek road bike to greet his fellow crewmates awaiting him in their flight suits. His custom-built bike was part of a Virgin Galactic-Trek marketing deal.
But it was fake. The ride was staged a few days earlier, ironically near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. And yet the media reported the pre-launch ride as fact because Virgin Galactic, Branson and Trek promoted this false story, even serving up video and social media posts which made it appear true. There was no story here unless it was timed to launch day.
When reporters started raising questions about the video’s timing, Virgin Galactic only then fessed up, sort of, by telling Reuters, “The footage of Sir Richard Branson shown during the event Sunday was prerecorded and misidentified in the broadcast. We regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.”
It’s pretty obvious this was not a simple misidentification. It almost certainly was intentional.
While there are certainly far worse, more damaging falsehoods told across society, this one sullies the carefully cultivated Branson brand, even if just a little bit. And truth matters—perhaps now more than ever. Here are three takeaways for communications professionals:
Doing the ethical thing is not only right, it’s smart. The ethical thing PR-wise is always the smart thing to do—there is never daylight between the two options. Rarely does something like this stay secret, so they should have seen this coming. What might have been a good secondary story angle on Branson’s launch day bike ride snapped back on him, tarnishing two brands along the way.
Doing the right thing can be hard. Think about how many people in the Virgin Galactic and Trek orbits (pardon the pun) knew about this scheme. We’ll never know if anyone spoke up to say, “Hey this is wrong,” or “Hey, this could blow back on Sir Richard and on Trek.” Either way, I can only imagine how incredibly hard it would have been for a lone voice to speak up in the face of this marketing juggernaut. Such dilemmas occur regularly across the communications industry, and we must admit sometimes it can be hard to do right. But it’s our job. The approach I’d suggest for any communications professional: will you feel better or worse the next morning if you speak up or if you fail to speak up?
Offer a real, full-throated apology, with redress, or don’t bother. Virgin Galactic’s statement comes across as disingenuous, as if their biggest regret was getting caught. This is bolstered by the fact Branson’s tweet promoting this falsehood remains up. It’s hard to imagine Trek didn’t know of this marketing fake, so one must consider their actions after the facts came out: their tweet promoting the falsehood also remains up as of this writing.
A final takeaway: The vast majority of those in our profession are highly ethical. Yet when a minority of communicators reach for the stars but take ethically questionable short cuts to get there through deceit, they often fall back to earth with a hard landing. And that hurts us all.
John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm, an integrated communications agency whose expertise includes transportation, and whose stated values in action put ethics at the heart of its operations. He regularly cycles to work and, coincidently, his company recently featured video of him commuting to the office on his Trek bike to celebrate National Bike to Work Day. Sadly, no space launch was involved.