PR lessons from the billionaire space race between Branson and Bezos

August 12, 2021

Written by Haley Corzo

Last month Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson gave us some out-of-this-world entertainment as they became some of the first people to attempt commercial space travel, kicking off the commercial space race. 

The two billionaires made history when they launched into space just one week apart. While both safely completed their spaceflights, each approached the publicity around their respective journeys in slightly different ways.

To illustrate this, we looked back at the public and media interest during the month of July to see what PR and branding lessons could be drawn from their efforts. 

Here’s what we learned. 

1. Owned media can be key to setting the tone

Branson being the first of the two billionaires to launch into space gave him the opportunity to have a first-go at crafting a clear message to the public. If there’s one thing to note about his comms strategy it’s this — Branson is his own brand ambassador, and he’s the best at it.

In advance of his launch on July 11, Branson wrote blog posts for Virgin’s website and regularly posted to his own Facebook page. He does a lot of storytelling through his blog posts, including personal anecdotes of his childhood dreams and thoughtful photos of him and his space crew. Meanwhile, his Facebook posts are used as a way to keep the public updated every step of the way, in near real time. He even shared a friendly photo of him and Elon Musk spending time together during the morning of his launch. The post received over 131k engagements and helped to put paid to the perception of a billionaire rivalry between the two. 

Bezos’s approach to owned media looks a little different. He doesn’t have his own Facebook page and he has not posted on his Twitter account since February 2020. The one social media channel that we see him consistently posting on is Instagram, which is particularly relevant here due to the IGTV content surrounding his spaceflight. Although he is present on Instagram, we still see higher engagement on Branson’s posts on the platform, and overall Bezos is somewhat lacking a holistic approach to social media, which affects his ability to set the agenda.

Branson’s strength was his presence across owned media channels. In July he posted to his Facebook page 22 times, gaining over 980k engagements on content surrounding the spaceflight, and was the Facebook page with the most engagements. The biggest piece of owned content was his blog post “Flying to space onboard Virgin Galactic”, which had 287k engagements on Facebook and was second on the list of most engaged with articles about the two companies.

Table showing the top articles about the space race between Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson.

The only piece to receive more engagement than the Virgin blog was a competition to win seats on a Virgin Galactic flight.

2. Controlling the narrative remains difficult 

When owned media is not part of the overall strategy, setting the tone can be hard. It can also mean that future actions can be received in ways they were not intended or that take away from the objective. The tone of top stories surrounding Bezos’s spaceflight shifted in a more negative direction compared to what it was a week prior with Branson’s launch.

Days before he took to space, Bezos donated $200 million to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where he expressed how science and space inspired him as a child. He also auctioned off a seat on his first spaceflight for $28 million, with proceeds going to Blue Origin’s STEM focused non-profit Club for the Future. 

These massive charitable actions had the potential to complement Bezos’s achievement with Blue Origin. However, a statement made post-flight, in which he thanked Amazon employees for paying his way to space, saw backlash from public figures such as U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted about lower wages and poor working conditions being the real way Amazon workers have “paid” for the flight. Her tweet gained over 165k engagements and a Facebook video of a homeless Amazon worker went viral three days later.

AOC tweets criticism of Jeff Bezos

The press conference with Bezos steered the conversation away from space and into murkier waters. Without strong messaging and a distinguished voice, brands have to tread lightly when it comes to public appearances and statements. Business Insider’s article about Bezos’ comment had 70k engagements and was second on the list of top websites. Other top media outlets who wrote about this were Fox News and NPR.

3. Separating the billionaire from the brand can change perception 

So much of the attention was directed at Bezos and Branson themselves that it’s easy to forget that there are whole brand infrastructures behind the front men themselves. So we also took a deep dive into the stories written about each company and their space race to see what the data would tell us if we looked at the brands on their own without their founders. 

First stop: Blue Origin. The company was only written about 1,732 times with no reference to Bezos compared to the 22,151 articles that mention Bezos himself in the context of spaceflight. What stands out here is not the light coverage of Blue Origin, but the person who was in the spotlight when Bezos was out of the picture. 

Six out of the top ten articles written were about Wally Funk, the 82 year old aviation pioneer who was denied the chance to go to space in the 1960’s because she was a woman. Bezos chose her to be a part of his crew, making her life-long dream a reality. This was a critical piece of Blue Origin’s campaign because it was an opportunity to pull at the heart strings of the public. However, when Bezos gets added into the equation the focus begins to shift.

Top stories about Blue Origin not mentioning Jeff Bezos, ranked by engagement

Looking at Virgin Galactic, we still see fewer articles written about the company, but there is less of a gap between it and Branson. Facebook was still the biggest focus for Virgin Galactic, largely due to Branson’s organic content. 

This is important to note because Virgin Galactic might not have received as many engagements if Branson wasn’t his own brand ambassador. 

Both launches are complete, the public and media have both had their say, and we’ve learned that even billionaires have to put in work to own their brand.  

Here are three key takeaways from our research:

  1. Owned media (both social and blog) can be key for connecting with the public and setting the tone of the coverage
  2. Without the right messaging, even the most charitable actions can lose impact and fall second to negative coverage
  3. Separating the personality from the brand can tell a very different story

As space travel continues to develop and more rockets are built, it will be interesting to see what other billionaires might enter the race and if they’ve learned anything from those who led the way.

If you’d like to see the tools used to do this analysis in action, check out NewsWhip Spike here.

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