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

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

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

The brand, which is also funded by Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, debuted 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 ambition for Virgin Galactic to become the first commercial operator of space flights in 2007 has been slower than he 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.

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

"Up until 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," he explained.

Edelman was hired at a point when 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. 

Yet according to a Virgin source, a more inclusive narrative is the order of the day.

"Up until this point, comms has been focused on generating a certain amount of awareness and excitement," the source said. "But now, the company needs to build a story about the scientific achievement, as well as what this will lead to. This is not just about space tourism."

That 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 math as both [companies] run significant and well-regarded community relations and STEM programs," the announcement claimed. 

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

Edelman has assembled a six-strong team split equally between London and New York that is led by Jo Sheldon. It will support the five-member 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 unauthorized 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 serialized the book. 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.

This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK.

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