Virgin Atlantic: Private View PR - Mark Borkowski

The reason Virgin Atlantic has been such a rip-roaring success over the years is down to its founder, Sir Richard Branson. Doubtless there are jumbo-loads of extremely talented people working in the organisation and their contribution is essential, but it's primarily Branson. Only he truly understands the game of using publicity first to connect with people, then to make them your friends and, finally, your customers. The rules of getting it right are straightforward but endlessly demanding.

First you have to be committed to the process 24/7; it's no use switching your enthusiasm on and off or the press will ignore you. Then you must create events worthy of your product and your public. Marshall McLuhan may have mooted that "all publicity is good publicity", but only up to a point, Lord Copper. Good PR pushes the press' magic buttons: sex, fame, humour, controversy and culture are the drivers.

This isn't news, of course: it's the same magic Phineas T Barnum weaved back in the 19th century when his Three-Ring circus, its ringmaster and its elephants were the most famous ever known. As well as a quiet, confident patriotism and a love of pranks, Branson shares Barnum's sense of the epic and the heroic, rare enough qualities at the best of times, but irresistible to editors and their readership in the 21st century. In the era of the grey bean counters who dominate the corporate world, we need Branson and his buccaneering spirit more than ever.

The idea that an airline can be not only safe and reliable but also have a sense of humour remains a slightly unnerving proposition.

Perhaps it's some association with Leslie Nielsen and blazing fireballs in the original Airplane movie. I don't know. Branson cheerfully screened the outrageous movie on the celebrity-packed inaugural flight.

Margaret Thatcher so hated what was meant to replace the Union Jack on BA's planes that she placed a handkerchief over the new livery on live TV. Branson and his team recognised their opportunity, and the noble symbol was promptly incorporated into Virgin Atlantic's colours, where it remains to this day.

If adventure is important to Branson, so is deflating pomposity. Amused by the fact that BA was having a spot of bother with its share price as well as with delays raising its London Eye attraction, Virgin stole a thunderclap with a serene fly-past and an airborne raspberry.

Informed opinion holds that Virgin would never actually have been able to maintain it, but the news that Branson was even thinking of making a bid for Concorde when BA withdrew it was enough to brand him the true patriot he appears to be. The public loved Concorde even though they knew they'd never get to fly on it. Now they loved Branson for trying to save a Great British Icon. Of course, BA would never have allowed Virgin to muscle in on its greatest-ever marketing asset but, hey, the game's the thing, and Virgin Upper Class was the winner for it.

The dirty tricks incident, which climaxed in 1993, made British Airways look very seedy indeed. It's hard to imagine how the greatest entrepreneur of his generation found himself the victim of puerile passenger-stealing tactics, phone-tapping and a fair amount of guerilla marketing activity.

Anyhow, he went to court and won. Lord King was forced to retire early and pay Branson £610,000 in damages plus his legal costs. Credibility restored, Virgin Atlantic went from strength to strength.

And look - he's still at it. Branson set the Guinness World Record for the fastest Channel crossing in an amphibious car. Is there nothing a great self-publicist won't do to keep himself in the papers? No, there isn't. That's the glorious point where "show" means "business". Happy 20th, Virgin Atlantic Airways.

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