Covid-19 hasn’t been good to Sir Richard Branson. A once much-loved public figure, Branson was voted Britain’s favourite businessman in the noughties. His image no doubt played a part in securing this accolade. A self-made billionaire, Branson challenged society’s stereotype of what it meant to be a businessman – he is eccentric, fun-loving, tie-loathing, and rubs shoulders with A-listers on his private Caribbean hideaway.
However, the image that worked wonders for Branson during peacetime has done him few favours in the current crisis. After he called on the UK government to bail out Virgin Atlantic with a £500 million loan, some have bestowed a new title on Britain’s “most popular businessman” – now “tax-dodging, NHS-robbing scum,” and a “traitor to his country,” among other choice epithets. An online petition to strip Branson of his knighthood is rapidly attracting signatures. Oh, the joys of social media!
Even in the best of times, crass displays of wealth by public figures are hard to relate to, but the effect is magnified tenfold during a worldwide pandemic – not least when it involves a self-proclaimed ‘tax exile’ who sued the NHS and is now seeking UK state aid to save his airline, which happens to be 49% owned by a US airline. It’s no surprise that in recent articles covering the airline’s woes, the British press have published pictures of Branson posing with scantily-clad models on his luxury island idyll or in front of his latest aircraft. Nothing says “we’re all in this together” like an image of Richard Branson blasting into space in his Virgin Galactic rocket.
Of course, the internet hasn’t helped Branson’s cause, allowing ready access to decade-old articles in which he’s quoted as urging the then PM, Gordon Brown, to stand firm against using British taxpayers’ money to bail out British Airways.
Branson’s fall from grace has important lessons for reputation managers. Now, more than ever, we must keep attuned to the tide of public opinion which can turn in an instant. Several considerations are key: what actions in today’s unprecedented climate are being applauded and which chastised? How to show a sharing, caring side of commercial enterprise, without looking like you are simply chasing the plaudits and trying too hard? What measures should company leaders take personally to protect their business? While Branson has experienced the downside of social media, on the plus side, it’s a very useful bellwether of the mood of the nation and allows companies to react nimbly and far more appropriately.
The coming months will determine whether Virgin Atlantic can survive the economic storm created by Covid-19. As for Branson’s reputation, recovery may take a little longer; judging by Virgin Group’s swift response to a scathing attack on the mogul by Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, it seems Branson isn’t wasting any time.
25th April 2020