Edelman takes a ride on Branson's slow-motion space adventure

Virgin Galactic is probably on every PR agency's dream assignment list, but previous delays to Richard Branson's space venture suggest it may not be a complete blast.

Virgin Galactic: (picture credit MarsScientific/Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic: (picture credit MarsScientific/Virgin Galactic)

The brand, which is also funded by Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, announced itself ten years ago this September with the launch of a website inviting future astronauts to register their interest.

It is safe to say progress towards Branson’s original ambition for Virgin Galactic to become the first commercial operator of space flights in 2007 has been slower than he at first envisioned.

However, the company says it hopes to reach that goal before the end of 2014.

Hence the search for a new global PR agency, leading to Edelman’s appointment in the wake of January’s successful third supersonic test flight from its spaceport in the Mojave Desert in the US.

Edelman’s heavyweight credentials were praised by former Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn, who speaks from experience of the need to not worry about short-term publicity.

"Up till now Virgin Galactic has not tried to do things too quickly for PR reasons, and this should not be viewed as a race – this is not the same as launching a brand of soap."

Edelman has been brought in at a point where Virgin Galactic, which also works with Griffin Communications in the US,  is seeking a shift of emphasis in its communications. The company has ridden a streak of publicity around the celebrity clientele who have put deposits down for the $250,000 tickets, from Stephen Hawking to Justin Bieber.

But according to a current Virgin source, a more inclusive narrative is now the order of the day. "Up till this point comms has been focused on generating a certain amount of awareness and excitement," says the source, "but now the company needs to build a story around the scientific achievement around it, as well as what this will lead to. This is not just about space tourism."

The claim refers to Virgin Galactic’s plans to use its spaceships to transport scientists and satellites.

With a nod to these more exalted aims, which no doubt governments will be inclined to look kindly on, Virgin Galactic announced a partnership with car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover this week.

"The partnership is aimed at inspiring more young people to consider a future in science, technology, engineering and maths as both [companies] run significant and well-regarded community relations and STEM programmes," the announcement claimed.

This is bread-and-butter territory for Edelman, which summarised its successful pitch with the phrase "wonder, possibility and impact".

Edelman has assembled a six-strong team split equally between London and New York and led by Jo Sheldon, which will support the five-strong in-house communications and marketing team.

And of course, Branson himself will be in the mix as both decision-maker and publicity asset.

"When he has the kind of interest in a project that he does with Virgin Galactic he will want to know what's going on, but he will be helpful and will make the time to be available should they want to make use of him," says former Virgin Trains director of communications Arthur Leathley.

The publicity Branson attracts is not always positive, however. Virgin Galactic’s problems were examined earlier this year as part of investigative author Tom Bower’s unauthorised biography, Branson: Behind the Mask.

Bower, who suggested Virgin Galactic may never get off the ground, claimed there are problems with the technology and drew attention to the deaths of three engineers in an explosion in 2007.

Virgin Galactic issued a measured response including a letter to The Sunday Times, which serialised the book, while Branson himself said: "The best way of dealing with people like that is to prove them wrong and we will prove them wrong in the next few months."

Time will tell whether Edelman and its new client get to enjoy a smooth countdown to launch or whether a bumpy ride will force them to deploy the spin thrusters.

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