The comms strategy behind Virgin Hyperloop’s first passenger test

The company brought on Edelman as AOR in August.

Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop's chief technology officer, and Sara Luchian, director of passenger experience. (Image via Virgin Hyperloop).

LOS ANGELES: Virgin Hyperloop VP of marketing and communications Ryan Kelly isn’t afraid of making lofty comparisons when it comes to his company’s high-speed transportation technology. 

Kelly said that running comms for Virgin Hyperloop feels like the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk moment. Although it will be years before the public can use the system, Virgin Hyperloop hosted the first ride on its test track in Las Vegas this month. 

The test ride gave consumers a glimpse into what the experience could be like on Virgin’s system, which relies on magnetic levitation. A hyperloop is an experimental transportation system in which people travel in a vehicle in a vacuum tube as fast as 600 mph.

“Running comms and marketing for Virgin Hyperloop is very interesting because it is not only about promoting our brand, but it’s also about promoting and explaining a new form of transportation to the market,” said Kelly. “We are building awareness about what this can do for society and getting people excited about it.”

Virgin Hyperloop brought on Edelman at the end of August as its AOR. The firm helped the company gear up for its first test on November 8 with passengers Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop's chief technology officer, and Sara Luchian, director of passenger experience. The next day, Hyperloop staffers Tanay Manjrekar and Anne Huynh became the second set of passengers to ride it. 

Before then, Edelman and Virgin Hyperloop kept news of the test top secret. It even had a code name: “Pegasus Project.”

“Given that it’s a test and the first time we are doing this, it’s not like a PR announcement where you know it is set in stone and will go live at a specific time,” said Kelly. “It was quite a challenge and the ceiling was very high for this. We haven’t seen a new form of mass transit in over a century." 

Virgin Hyperloop wanted to communicate about the test in an exciting way that would build hope and inspiration. But a hurdle from a strategic perspective, noted Janine Brady, VP of earned media, corporate and public affairs at Edelman, is that it’s difficult for communicators to get traction in a news cycle filled with stories about the presidential election and COVID-19.  

“We worked hard to position this as an inspiring story, as the Kitty Hawk moment,” said Brady. “That resonated with the press. When we talked with reporters, they were excited to work on it because it was a positive story when there is so much difficulty happening in the world right now." 

Pre-pandemic, Virgin Hyperloop would have invited a range of media outlets on site for the test. Instead, the company had to be selective. The New York Times and “Today” were asked to cover the test in-person.

“We chose them because we have good relationships with both and they are respected outlets in their own right,” said Kelly. “Today represented folks that had never heard about Hyperloop before, and the Times has global reach and did a long-form piece and stuck with us for a couple of weeks as we prepared for the task.”

Kelly noted that the company also wanted media outlets there to verify the test’s accuracy.

Today’s story on the Hyperloop lasted six minutes. 

Hyperloop gave other outlets around the globe news under embargo. Once the test proved to be a success, other outlets such as Engadget, The Verge, the Financial Times, the BBC, the Times of India and Axios were pitched stories. 

“It was important for the company to show as transparently as possible the actual test, so content and video were really key for us,” said Kelly.

On the day of the test, Virgin Hyperloop recorded Giegel and Luchian’s entire day, from the moment they woke up to the second they stepped out of the pod once the test was complete.

“We did a 90-second video talking about the vision of what this is, and we also had raw footage to give an inside look at what we did and we got reactions from the passengers,” said Kelly.

The company’s leadership also gave interviews to media outlets and shared their own reactions on social media.

Virgin Hyperloop was established in 2014 as Hyperloop Technologies on the premise of making Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s vision of a futuristic transportation system of magnetically levitating pods quickly traveling through tubes a reality. In 2016, the company rebranded as Hyperloop One and then changed to Virgin Hyperloop one after Richard Branson’s company acquired it one year later.

Virgin Hyperloop shared the content on its social channels, including on YouTube, and created a page on its website devoted to the Pegasus Project.

“We wanted to show people what the experience would look like and what the ride would look like,” said Brady. “The assets helped make the story go viral." 

Following the first test on November 8, data from November 11 showed that the event resulted in 5,100 articles and 3,100-plus broadcast hits. Virgin Hyperloop’s social media posts reached 1.9 million people, with 166,000 engagements, and it also received close to 1 million video views and had 40,000 third-party posts, Kelly said.

“For the rest of the year, this is a story that has captured people’s attention, so [Giegel and Luchian] will be doing different events around the world with The Wall Street Journal and others,” said Kelly. “People want to hear the story, how it felt to be the first passengers, how we got to this moment and what it means for the future.”

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