Profile: Will Whitehorn, special adviser to Sir Richard Branson and president, Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic's president is planning to boldly go where no PR professional has gone before, he tells Kate Magee.

Will Whitehorn
Will Whitehorn

Will Whitehorn is explaining the birth of Virgin Galactic: 'I was sitting in Marrakesh with Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson and we started talking about going to space.' This story, like many others he tells, demonstrates why Whitehorn must seem quite alien to the rest of the PR world.

For years, Whitehorn has been known as Sir Richard Branson's right-hand man. He may have taken a step back from these day-to-day duties, but he has certainly kept the dizzying schedule. As president of Virgin Galactic he is in charge of launching the first commercial flights to the final frontier. This week he is in New Mexico with the state governor to inaugurate the construction of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's home from 2011.

If that was not enough, he is also non-executive chairman of Next Fifteen and has also set up a working farm. He proudly tells PRWeek he won first and second prize for his pigs in the recent Hailsham Fatstock Show. 'Now there is a PRWeek front page,' smiles Whitehorn.

It all seems a little unreal, sitting in his nondescript offices in the aptly named Half Moon Street watching videos of spaceships looking down on earth. But when Whitehorn starts explaining the plans in detail with practised ease, striding around the room pointing at models and pictures of spaceships, it is clear this is not another Virgin publicity stunt.

Whitehorn admits selling space travel to consumer journalists is not a hard gig, with the tabloid headlines taking care of themselves. He now spends his time explaining the technical details and potential of the project to the scientific community and international governments.

He has a deep and genuine passion for space and technology, and points out that without space technologies such as GPS (to trace global food movements) and farmers being able to access instant weather updates, more than a billion people across the globe would be starving.

This interest in technology developed at an early age. As a child he used to regularly make his parents sit in a cafe at Edinburgh Airport 'while I had my nose pressed up to glass watching every single plane that moved'. It is also in his genes. He claims his grandfather invented the first petrol-electric car in 1927, a technology that ran all the London buses in the 30s. 'But it was abandoned because no-one could understand why they would need to be more fuel efficient in the future. My grandfather died pretty much a penniless man,' he says, a hint of injustice creeping into his voice.

Whitehorn does not possess the bubbly persona of his boss. On the contrary, he seems rather intense. Former City diarist and PR consultant Damien McCrystal, who has known him for 30 years, says: 'All his school and university friends always said he would end up as the chairman of ICI, but now it no longer exists he never got the chance. He has an amazing mind that retains every fact he hears.'

But an industry insider says while 'there are traces of geekiness about him', he is actually 'a late-night party animal who likes fine wine and shooting'.

After a schooling in City PR, he was poached from Lombard Communications to join Virgin in 1987. Whitehorn remains fiercely loyal to Branson. 'He will not allow Richard to come under attack from a journalist at any point,' observes McCrystal.

When he was Virgin Group corporate affairs director, the 48-year-old could take much of the credit for Virgin's revolutionary approach to PR and building the admired brand. 'Virgin was one of the first companies to really engage with the public on the basis that life is a story and you have to keep telling it for good or bad as it unfolds. You get respect from the public for doing that,' he says.

This belief was put into practice during the Cumbrian rail crash in 2007, when despite one person being killed, Virgin was praised for getting the media to focus on the heroism of the train driver.

Whitehorn trekked across 'dredge sodden fields for miles' with Branson to visit the scene. 'It was the moment we always dreaded. But the philosophy is if something happens, you expect the boss to be there. For good or bad you have to be prepared to face the public. A lot of bosses are badly advised by PR firms not to do that,' he says.

Whitehorn now lives on his farm in East Sussex with his family, where he has built a solar power station supplying power to the National Grid. But his lot is far from the quiet country life this suggests. After all, he is planning to be the first PR professional in space. Now that is a USP.

 

WILL WHITEHORN'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break? Life is not a big break, it is about luck and making luck from that luck. My break was being in the right place, in the mood for a fight and having a supportive boss when some people at BA tried to put Virgin Atlantic out of business using 'dirty tricks'.

Have you had a notable mentor? As well as being an inspiring employer, Sir Richard Branson has been a mentor and a friend. I was also privileged to know the amazing Sir Freddie Laker, the greatest entrepreneur of his generation in the travel industry.

What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder? Keep working after college and don't sit around waiting for the singular opportunity you desire. Treat all work as an opportunity to learn. A holiday job in McDonald's or WHSmith can teach you a lot about management.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits? Enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. You have to see the fun as well as the necessary hard work. And the ability to overcome adversity with a good heart.

 

CV

2007: Special adviser to Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group; president,Virgin Galactic

2004: Non-executive chairman, Next Fifteen

2000: Brand development and corporate affairs director, Virgin Group

1987: Group PR manager, Virgin Group

1986: Account director, Lombard Communications

1985: Market intelligence officer, TSB Group

1984: Graduate trainee, Thomas Cook

1982: Helicopter crew, British Airways

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