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richard branson PR stunts

Richard Branson promotes Virgin Airlines in the Fountains at the Bellagio. Photo credit:

If only all CEOs were more like Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group and recognized master of public relations.

Branson clearly understands the value of PR. His creative publicity stunts have prompted some to call him the undisputed king of PR stunts. He dressed in a space suite for a Virgin Galactic press conference and a wedding dress to promote his retail store Virgin Brides.  He drove a tank down Fifth Avenue to launch Virgin Cola.

He attempted to fly a hot air balloon around the world. He dressed as a female flight attendant for a competing airline (because he lost a bet). He bungee-jumped off the roof of a 407-foot-high casino hotel in Las Vegas to celebrate a Virgin America flight. He starred as a Casanova gunslinger in a 20-minute movie produced by Virgin Mobile.

He used ice cubes on Virgin Atlantic flights that were a sculpture of his face. He drove an amphibious car across the English Channel, dressed in a tuxedo. He had the audacity to name his companies “Virgin.” And he always seems to be ready with a quotable quip in public.

“Publicity is absolutely critical,” Branson wrote in his book, Virgin Rebel: Richard Branson in His Own Words. “You have to get your brand out and about, particularly if you’re a consumer-oriented brand. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.”

Branson again emphasized the importance of PR at an appearance before about 1,700 guests in Adelaide, Australia.

In an article for the Drum, Biela McMillan, principal public relations consultant for bPR, quoted him as saying: “The head of PR is perhaps one of the most important people in a company and a good chairman will have them by their side. They are critical for managing the brand and save millions in advertising. People talking about your company is much more important than anything.”

Why is Branson so successful in PR? How does he do it?

Branson offered six PR tips in a blog post. Although addressing environmental start-ups, the advice can apply to most all organizations.

Tell stories. Data is necessary, but people respond to stories, not numbers.

Be creative. Experiment with new ways of telling stories, including video and slideshows. Large budgets are not required. You need only a smartphone, free social tools and enthusiasm.

Choose the right channel. Match your content to platforms and audiences. LinkedIn is best for business; Twitter serves a more general audience, and Facebook is more personal.

Be truthful. Social media has increased transparency. Those who fake it are uncovered. In any case, the truth is more interesting than fiction.

Collaborate. Work with people and organizations who are fighting for the same cause. Sharing hashtags, for instance, can help organize people around events and community gatherings

Have fun. Making work fun brings success. People will notice if you’re just going through motions. If you’re having fun, your community will respond.

Listen to your customers. Years ago he cold called Virgin Atlantic customers in their company-provided limos after their flights to ask if they’d enjoyed their flight and if there was anything the airline could do better, he wrote in another blog post. He said he considered it an excellent source of customer feedback and a wonderful public relations exercise.

Branson revealed PR tips his book, “Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School. Here are several via Business Insider.

Do whatever it takes. He learned about the importance of being visible from Freddie Laker, a British airline entrepreneur. “Make sure you appear on the front page and not the back pages,” Laker told him. “You are going to have to get out there and sell yourself. Make a fool of yourself, whatever it takes. Otherwise you won’t survive.”

Choose your name wisely. Virgin has benefited from its name. It connotes something new and fresh and slightly risqué, at least at the time of its creation. Branson is careful to promote the brand’s image of value and service.

Stress the second impression. The customer’s second impression of the company is vital. The second time a customer contacts Virgin is usually because they have a problem. How the company handles the issue is critical for maintaining its customer relationship.

Social media has given Branson another outlet.  He is personally very active on Twitter (@richardgranson), sharing business insights and personal activities with 3.5 million followers.  He also writes his own blog posts.

Bottom Line: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has made a name for himself as a master of public relations. PR pros, business leaders and nonprofit marketers can learn quite a lot from Branson, who’s been called the king of PR stunts.