Guest Posting: Communicating at Virgin Atlantic, by Adam Schair

Adam SchairAdam Schair is Vice President, Human Resources Communications at Thomson Reuters in New York and a member of the Thomson Reuters Internal Communication & Engagement Council. He manages a team of human resources communications specialists. This post appears with his express permission.

Fortune Favors the Bold: Communicating at Virgin Atlantic, by Adam Schair

Virgin AdI recently went to a highly entertaining and informative IABC Westfair talk given by Jenna Lloyd, Virgin Atlantic Marketing Director, about communications at a company borne from Richard Branson’s innovative mind, created with the sole purpose of shaking up an industry. Although Jenna focused on external communications, she made it clear that Virgin’s internal and external communications are treated with the same tone and goal of challenging the status quo and creating the unexpected.

In fact, Jenna’s talk was called “Flying in the Face of Ordinary to create a communication culture.” Flying in the Face of Ordinary was not just the name of her talk, but Virgin Atlantic’s mantra; it’s north star. They call it FITFOO, and she recounted that in their many brainstorming meetings, when a person suggests an idea that is on the more mundane side, someone will inevitably say, “That idea is not FITFOO enough.”

The following is a summary of the five points of her talk, which were categorized by paraphrased quotes from Richard Branson himself. This all may make you slightly jealous of the Virgin Atlantic communications culture, but I saw it also as presenting an exciting challenge as we try to create an innovative culture (of course, I doubt we will be offering rides to outer space any time soon).

1. Being Brave is Part of our DNA

Jenna started with a quote from Simon Sinek, who some of you may know wrote the book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and is a frequent TED talker, “People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.”

She said that this quote really captured the essence of how they approach communications at Virgin Atlantic. To prove it, she then read from their principles, for lack of a better term, which contains phrases as:

  • We zig while others zag
  • We’re the antidote to dull
  • We do red where other’s do beige
  • And Richard Branson’s employment philosophy: Don’t just play the game; change it for good.

She took us through some their campaigns to illustrate how they not only use the unexpected to prove a point, but, going back to Simon Sinek’s quote, demonstrated the “why” as well as the “what.” Here are links to a few, if you want to read more:

2. Don’t think what’s the cheapest way to do it or what’s the fastest way to do it; think what’s the most amazing way to do it

When they make decisions at Virgin Atlantic, they do with the mission to make people feel good. It is simple in concept, difficult in practice. But many of their campaigns live up to this idea. Here are a few:

  • Twitter rewards campaign: the team scoured twitter and found people who made statements indicating they were having a “grey day.” They would then send a team to cheer the person up.
  • Anti-Mundane Squad: The team would identify mundane experiences (e.g., the local DMV) and brighten it up by bringing red velvet cupcakes.
  • No Ordinary Park Bench: The replaced a park bench with an experience similar to sitting in first class on the airline.

Of course, all of this was picked up in social media and went viral. An interesting (and I guess consistent) point about Virgin Atlantic and social media is that when they measure success, they measure sentiment first and reach second. Usually, it is the other way around.

Jenna summed it up in a quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

3. Screw it, just do it

That is a direct Richard Branson quote, and he says it a lot. It speaks to creating a culture where there is no fear of failure when you try new things. It also speaks to the tongue-in-cheek tone that pervades their communications.

London EyeThe great example of this was when British Airways landed what seemed to be a marketing coup of being the primary sponsor of the London Eye. The story goes that at first, they had difficulty in raising the giant Ferris wheel into place. When Richard Branson heard this news, without hesitation, he hired a blimp to fly over the scene of the construction. I’ll let the picture (left) tell the rest of the story.

In this case, as Jenna quoted, “Fortune favors the brave.”

4. The way you treat your employees is the way they’ll treat your customers

I cannot imagine any of my communications colleagues would argue with this statement. Richard Branson is a strong believer in this, and that is why they try to treat their employees like rock stars. They make the work environment fun, and encourage a healthy work/life balance.

One example Jenna gave of creating a bit of glamour and fun was how they transformed their employee newsletter for their crew into a glossy magazine called Runway that provides glamour tips.

5. Bring it to the customer

Many of you have seen pictures of Richard Branson serving drinks on his airline. That iconic picture speaks to Virgin Atlantic’s Philosophy. They are always thinking of ways to proactively make their customers feel good. Examples Jenna gave included giving their customers that had to fly from home on Valentine’s Day a little gift to cheer them up, and sending cocktail shakers on Admin’s Day to executive administrators who book travel for their executives. The cocktail shakers came with a note that said, “thanks for keeping things together, now shake things up!” I am sure a lot of executives began finding themselves booked on a lot more Virgin Atlantic flights after that.

Parting advice

Jenna concluded by summarizing her learnings at Virgin Atlantic in the following seven points:

  1. Know your story; know your why
  2. Challenge convention
  3. Make people feel amazing
  4. Opportunity favors the bold
  5. Treat employees like customers
  6. Surprise & delight people
  7. Have fun

Every one of those points applies just as much to internal as external communications. Let’s shake things up!

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