Communicator of the Week: Sir Richard Branson

As the Battle of Waterloo reached its critical moment, with the British lines close to collapse under the pressure of attack from French infantry and cannon fire, the Duke of Wellington, commanding the British and allied forces against Napoleon, rode his horse towards the point of greatest concern.

The British Redcoats, who were close to panic, saw Wellington arrive amongst their depleted ranks and calmly glance at his watch, this calmness fed through to the infantrymen and the British line held. In the next hour the tide of battle turned and the British won a famous victory. 

Wellington’s approach has been copied by the best leaders facing critical situations ever since. What is surprising is that so few CEOs have learnt this lesson which helped win a battle 200 years ago and instead keep their distance in a crisis. 

Sir Richard Branson has made himself central to how the Virgin brand is communicated whatever the business and wherever in the world it operates. Branson has become a globally recognised entrepreneur because of his commitment to getting this communication so right.

This means that when something goes wrong with a Virgin company people want to hear from Sir Richard. Happily, no matter how severe the negative or upsetting news, Branson - like Wellington - is not one to shy away from his responsibilities. 

This was the case on Friday last week when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. Branson made sure he was filmed in California as soon as possible but in the meantime used social media, through his Twitter account, to announce that he was on his way to the crash site and to pay tribute to the "brave pilots and families of those affected”.

Another great Branson communications trait is that he gets the tone just right.  

This was followed up by a longer blog and then his appearance at the crash site itself. All this allowed Branson and Virgin Galactic to set the tone for the coverage of the crash and it was revealing to see Branson’s own language (e.g. “space is hard”) being echoed by others in the hours and days after the crash. 

Branson has a track record of doing this, not least when a Virgin train crashed in rural Cumbria  in 2007. Branson flew to the crash site immediately – it was widely reported that he had cut short a family holiday – allowing stark parallels to be drawn between the level of care he was offering to those affected by the tragedy and Network Rail who tried to distance themselves from any blame. 

For his speed and empathy and for the recognition that a leader should always be where things are toughest Sir Richard Branson is my Communicator of the Week.   

Communicator of the Week is written by Ed Staite.

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