Virgin Galactic crash: Sir Richard Branson shows how to communicate in a crisis

In times of crisis, brands require strong leaders who can communicate confidently, and compassionately, in the intimidating glare of the media spotlight. In Sir Richard Branson, that's exactly what Virgin Galactic can rely on.

Sir Richard Branson

When Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight on Friday, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another, there was one man the world's media wanted to hear from. Sir Richard Branson did not leave them waiting.

For Branson, Virgin Galactic represents more than just another brand in his sprawling business empire; it has been his longstanding dream to make commercial space travel a reality – and it was an ambition he was coming close to realising, having taken 700 bookings for flights due to begin next year.

Whether Friday's fateful flight will be remembered as a tragic setback, or the moment Branson's dreams were dashed for good, will hinge significantly on how Virgin Galactic behaves in the coming hours, days, weeks and months. Communications experts tell The Drum that Branson's swift and sincere response to the tragedy has laid down the marker for his business to follow.

"What you do and say in the hours immediately after an incident set the tone by which an organisation will be judged," says crisis PR specialist Jonathan Hemus, of Insignia Communications. "In common with Virgin's response to a fatal train crash in Cumbria in 2007, Richard Branson's first words and actions strike just the right note, not least in his decision to immediately fly to the scene."

As happens so often now, Branson's first comments came not through the mainstream media, but on Twitter, where in the hours after the crash he paid tribute to the "brave pilots and families of those affected" and made sympathy for the human tragedy his central message.

"His use of the word 'brave' is interesting," says Hemus. "It is another echo of the Cumbrian rail crash when the train driver was portrayed by Branson as a hero. It is both an act of solidarity and support for his employee, but also a smart attempt to influence the narrative of the story."

Later that evening, Branson posted a longer blog as his plane refuelled on its flight to the crash site in California's Mojave Desert. Describing it as "one of the most difficult trips I have ever had to make", he again paid tribute to those involved but this time added that he would "persevere" with the space project.

"He always handles crises well, for two reasons," says Third City's Mark Lowe. "Firstly, he has a quality of empathy that is rare among senior businesspeople. Secondly, he gets ahead of the game, which he's done this time with a very personal blog post that's been picked up across international news outlets."

Andy Barr, who runs 10 Yetis, believes Branson has "once again proved he is the master when it comes to public relations in the face of adversity". In his pledge to continue the project, he's also walked a tricky tightrope astutely. "He has managed to find the fine line between coming across as respectful of the family of the dead pilot, whilst also showing the steely nerve and determination to keep the program on track."

So far Branson has set the media agenda, but this is just the beginning. As he arrives in the desert, Virgin's figurehead will face searching questions about what went so catastrophically wrong that a man lost his life and he will be interrogated at length about whether commercial space travel can ever be truly safe. "Harder tests may lie ahead as the blame game begins and prospective customers decide whether to continue to support the venture," says Hemus.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words, and Branson has always been recognised as a risk-taker. In this case, his most convincing and decisive act may be to make good on his promise to be Virgin Galactic's first passenger.