Branson and beyond: are veteran corporate 'mavericks' acting like dinosaurs with comms in COVID-19 crisis?

When PRWeek was compiling a list of the 50 best PR campaigns of the past 50 years last summer, one name came up frequently: Virgin. And, naturally, its famous founder.

Richard Branson and Tim Martin (credit: Robin Marchant for SiriusXM/Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Richard Branson and Tim Martin (credit: Robin Marchant for SiriusXM/Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Richard Branson helped redefine business and PR in the 1980s and 1990s as he cast himself as the plucky, glamorous go-getter taking on the big boys. He later became a vocal advocate of progressive causes including LGBT+ rights and humane drugs laws – a perfect fit in the era of corporate 'purpose'.

But goodwill toward the billionaire has plummeted amid his public silence during the coronavirus crisis; particularly following news that Virgin Atlantic staff have been asked to take eight weeks unpaid leave.

The fact that Virgin Group is no longer majority owner of the airline does not matter. How can the man who personifies the Virgin brand not dig into his unimaginable wealth at a time like this, to help employees and wider society?

Several apparently media-savvy, 'larger-than-life' business leaders who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s appear to be failing on the comms front as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

I wrote last week that the crisis is beginning to sort genuinely purposeful brands – those that are actually helping in the crisis – from the 'purpose-washers'. Could it be that Branson is happy to grandstand on certain issues as long as they don't involve spending a penny?

That's unlikely. I'm not cynical enough to think he doesn't genuinely care about progressive causes or support charities. But failure to be seen to act now could cause permanent damage to his image.

Branson isn't alone.

The apparent lack of commitment by Stelios Haji-Ioannou to help easyJet staff who could face up to two months unpaid leave – as he pockets £60m in dividends – risks doing similar damage to the airline's founder; a man who reached near-Branson fame levels in the 1990s.

While Branson and Haji-Ioannou have been criticised for their silence, another corporate 'maverick', Tim Martin, faced a backlash for speaking out. The JD Wetherspoon founder said it's his "instinct" that closing pubs, bars and restaurants will not help stop the spread of COVID-19, counter to official government advice.

Like Branson, Martin has followed his nose and grown Wetherspoons in his own image to become a behemoth, while taking on much of the industry 'establishment'. His pubs have also contributed huge amounts to charities in that time.

Martin has alienated many for his vocal pro-Brexit views in recent years, although it's unlikely this has damaged his business in any meaningful way.

However, it's one thing to have a strong political opinion on Europe. It's quite another to contradict the advice of medical experts during a deadly pandemic, potentially putting lives at risk.

An overnight entry to this list is Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct boss who has come under fire for refusing to stop trading following the severe restricitions announced by Boris Johnson last night. Unlike Branson and the others mentioned here, however, Ashley is rarely portrayed in a positive light by the media at the best of times.

These figures stand in stark contrast to some of the newer entrepreneurs who have emerged in the era of 'purpose', and garnered positive publicity for their actions during the crisis.

Joe 'The Body Coach' Wicks, for example, hosting YouTube fitness classes aimed at children as schools shut.

Or the BrewDog founders manufacturing hand sanitiser and delivering lunches to vulnerable people.

With trust in politicians so low, the public increasingly expect businesses to step up, especially during the biggest global crisis of recent years.

The high-profile corporate 'mavericks' of the past must adjust to the new reality or else they risk become the kind of outdated 'dinosaur' they once railed against.

John Harrington is editor of PRWeek UK

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