Richard Branson had it right when he complained about people who knew nothing about the crash of SpaceShipTwo diving in front of cameras to analyze what must have gone wrong in the Mojave Desert.
Welcome, Sir Richard, to the “Fiasco Vortex,” a concept I write about in my new book, Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal. The Fiasco Vortex is a public relations virus where immediately upon a major news event, pundits spontaneously emerge to declare the crisis to have been mismanaged and the principal – in this case Branson’s space venture – dead in the water. To be clear – commenting on crises and stirring debate is an industry. After all, you only get to go on TV if you can feed the Vortex either with allegations of mismanagement or hints that the principal knew something very sinister all along and covered it up.
Not so fast.
Most crises come with assets and liabilities, advantages and disadvantages, and the SpaceShipTwo tragedy is no exception. Much of crisis management is about context, or the circumstances surrounding the event. On the negative side, the Virgin space race doesn’t have the serious backdrop that the Cold War aerospace misfortunes had. After all, we were fighting Soviet communism, fresh off the heels of defeating Nazism – or at least this was the rationale. Virgin’s space venture is easily interpreted as the conceit of a super-rich man catering to the caprice of other super-rich people with the means and the time to dabble in extra-terrestrial voyaging. This is not the type of thing that the general public, not to mention regulators are likely to sympathize with, especially given the loss of life of test-pilots who may know how to fly, but don’t have the cash to own their own wings.
On the positive side, Branson isn’t claiming to be defending freedom or a noble cause. He’s just doing what Branson does: Dreaming just a little bigger and a little flashier than he normally does while catering to uber-elites. While this won’t allow the authorities to look the other way at the loss of human life in the service of capitalist indulgence, there is an unspoken subtext here: If zillionaires want to take their lives in their hands and go winging through the galaxy, well, fine.
If anybody can sell space travel, it’s Branson. Selling is what he does, and when it comes to slugging his way through controversy, his jaw is probably made more from tough composite plastic than it is glass. Why? Because Branson thrives on publicity and he’s really good at it. Most business leaders are terrified of confrontation and are enslaved by risk-aversion and insipid corporate bilge.
In the meantime, the rest of us should give serious thought to remaining on the ground while the red carpet set plays the role that NASA chimpanzees did during the dawn of the space program.
The Fiasco Vortex is a public relations virus where immediately upon a major new event, pundits spontaneously emerge to declare the crisis to have been mismanaged