Pandemic ends public love affair with Richard Branson et al

Opinion: The larger-than-life corporate mavericks who rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s suddenly seem unsure of themselves.

by John Harrington
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2020
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This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Richard Branson announced a response, including a commitment of money from Virgin, to protect jobs at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard Branson helped redefine business and PR in the 1980s and 1990s as he cast himself as the plucky, glamorous go-getter taking on the big boys. He later became a vocal advocate of progressive causes including LGBT+ rights and humane drugs laws – a perfect fit in the era of corporate 'purpose'.

But goodwill toward the billionaire has plummeted amid his public silence during the coronavirus crisis; particularly following news that Virgin Atlantic staff have been asked to take eight weeks unpaid leave.

The fact that Virgin Group is no longer the majority owner of the airline does not matter. How could the man who personifies the Virgin brand not dig into his unimaginable wealth at a time like this, to help employees and wider society?

Branson has since announced "a quarter of a billion dollars" over the next few months to protect employees and save jobs.

Several apparently media-savvy, 'larger-than-life' business leaders who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s appear to have fallen behind on the comms front as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

I wrote last week that the crisis is beginning to sort genuinely purposeful brands – those that are actually helping in the crisis – from the 'purpose-washers'. 

The apparent lack of commitment by Stelios Haji-Ioannou for example to help easyJet staff who could face up to two months unpaid leave – as he pockets £60m in dividends – risks doing similar damage to the airline's founder; a man who reached near-Branson fame levels in the 1990s.

While Branson and Haji-Ioannou have been criticised for their early silence, another corporate 'maverick', Tim Martin, faced a backlash for speaking out. The JD Wetherspoon founder said it's his "instinct" that closing pubs, bars and restaurants will not help stop the spread of COVID-19, counter to official government advice. (He later backtracked under intense public pressure.)

Like Branson, Martin has followed his nose and grown Wetherspoons in his own image to become a behemoth, while taking on much of the industry establishment. His pubs have also contributed huge amounts to charities in that time.

Martin has alienated many for his vocal pro-Brexit views in recent years, although it's unlikely this has damaged his business in any meaningful way.

However, it's one thing to have a strong political opinion on Europe. It's quite another to contradict the advice of medical experts during a deadly pandemic, potentially putting lives at risk.

Another entry to this list is Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct boss who has come under fire for refusing to stop trading following the severe restrictions announced by Boris Johnson on Monday. Unlike Branson and the others mentioned here, however, Ashley is rarely portrayed in a positive light by the media at the best of times.

These figures stand in stark contrast to some of the newer entrepreneurs who have emerged in the era of purpose, and garnered positive publicity for their actions during the crisis.

Joe 'The Body Coach' Wicks, for example, hosting YouTube fitness classes aimed at children as schools shut.

Or the BrewDog founders manufacturing hand sanitiser and delivering lunches to vulnerable people.

With trust in politicians so low, the public increasingly expect businesses to step up, especially during the biggest global crisis of recent years.

The high-profile corporate mavericks of the past must adjust to the new reality or else they risk becoming the kind of outdated 'dinosaur' they once railed against.

This article first appeared in Management Today’s sister title PR Week

Image credit: Don Arnold/WireImage via Getty Images


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