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Behind the Campaign: Virgin Atlantic head of PR Fay Burgin talks Little Red – and Little Richard

A feature I’ve been considering for a while is one I’ve decided to call ‘Behind the Campaign’.

Although it’s easily forgotten with the various pressures we’re under, PR is one hell of a fascinating industry to work in, at times. To highlight this and look at the people behind some of the stunts and campaigns that make the headlines, I’ll be aiming to post a new edition of Behind the Campaign as regularly as possible.

This debut week, I’m pleased to say we have Fay Burgin, head of PR for Virgin Atlantic, which, you may remember, recently made headlines when Sir Richard Branson showed us what was under his kilt to celebrate the launch of Little Red, a new domestic Virgin flight brand. Read all about it here. Fay has also worked at Sega as UK consumer PR manager and as an associate director at consumer agency Mischief.

If you’ve been involved in a stunt or campaign recently you think others would like to read about, please do get in touch. Ideally, your campaign will have featured on the pages of PRexamples.

Over to Fay:

 fay burgin head of pr headshot photo

Tasked with launching Virgin Atlantic’s new Little Red Domestic services to the UK media was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my career to date. Little Red marks a new chapter in VA history and required a delicate balance of the usual Virgin Atlantic PR trickery alongside targeted messaging that educated consumers to this completely new service.

As with all new VA route launches, we always celebrate with an inaugural party. However – the launch of Little Red actually meant we launched three routes within a matter of days of each other – Manchester took off first, followed by Edinburgh and lastly Aberdeen. We worked up a multi-layered campaign with the team at Bray Leino that ensured we targeted regional media and thereby regional consumers – key users of these domestic flights. Kicking off with a nice little regional competition to name our new planes – Queen of the Cobbles became the pride of Manchester – and the winner got to christen the plane alongside Catherine Kelly of Corrie fame. Our team spent a few days buzzing about the city in Little Red Fiat 500s and installed some interactive 3D street art in the centre of town to ensure the folks of Manchester knew we’d arrived.

virgin 3d art manchester little red

We sandwiched our launches in Manchester and Aberdeen with an inaugural party – and that took place in Edinburgh. I knew from the outset I wanted Richard to step off the plane wearing a kilt and I had a good idea about the style of cheeky photo opp I wanted to create. Our inaugurals traditionally involve a celebrity but on this occasion I wanted us to step away from that and let our cabin crew be the stars alongside Richard. Working with 21st Century Kilts – a rock n roll kilt outfitter – we created a bespoke VA Harris tweed for Richard and our male cabin crew to wear. After briefing the team at Bray Leino on the style of photo stunt I wanted – they went away to work up some suitable ‘pants puns’…we dismissed a fair few before I finally signed off on the chosen slogan.

I kept the actual stunt idea within a very tight circle of people to allow for surprise amongst staff as well as media. I’m also a firm believer in seeking forgiveness rather than asking permission – and when your photo stunt is focussed on someone’s groin – that’s absolutely the advice I’d pass on to anybody else!

When asked where the idea came from – I guess the answer would be two-fold. The classic ‘what do Scots wear under their kilts’ saying gave poetic license to have some fun with the photographers. But it was Richard and Willie Walsh who inspired the ‘Stiff Competition’ message. Their spat late last year resulted in a threat to ‘knee Richard in the groin’ – how could I not respond to that? Aside from that -we had a clear message to spell out – BA had been the monopoly operator on those Heathrow routes for the past 18 months so we truly are bringing stiff competition back to Scottish and Mancunian shores.

fay burgin and sir richard branson virgin atlantic

Richard found out exactly what he’d be doing at 7:30am on the day. We’d discussed him wearing a kilt a few months before, but the notion of flashing his pants was a surprise on the day. Thankfully he has a great sense of humour and despite fixing me with a slightly bemused look at first, he then laughed and said if the photographers were flashing him, he’d flash them back. It’s moments like that when you realise you have one of the luckiest jobs in PR. Not only is he totally behind creative and fun ideas – he’s willing to have a laugh and not take things too seriously. There aren’t many company presidents around who would do the same. We’ll often talk through ideas together and he’ll advise or give guidance if he feels it’s needed. He’s a huge advocate of social media and our recent April Fools glass-bottomed plane story smashed all Virgin social media records to date – he was thrilled with that.

Touching down in Edinburgh later that morning and watching him flash his pants slogan to the waiting media was like the icing on a cake that’s taken 4 months to bake. It felt great to see people having a good laugh on the tarmac. Things changed slightly as we sat down to lunch an hour or so later when one of the government affairs team whispered in my ear that Margaret Thatcher has passed away. I was sitting next to Richard and relayed the news. We were just about to enter into our press conference and instantly the mood shifted. It was obvious from that moment; media would see Richard as a perfect mouthpiece for sound bites on Thatcher and the fact he set up a number of businesses in the 1980s during her time as Prime Minister. Rightly so, we managed the press conference and struck a balance of respect for Thatcher and getting our messages across. Richard was of course asked continually during his one-to-one interviews about Thatcher and took the view to write a blog post about it and put his views forward for the online world to see. That didn’t entirely quash the media’s appetite but it did help us steer questions back onto Little Red.

Little red virgin atlantic richard branson

The next day we still made every newspaper albeit after the Thatcher obituaries and features. Our online presence is of utmost importance to us and we still got a lot of cut through there. Broadcast channels in Scotland also widely covered our arrival in Edinburgh. It’s undeniable that we would have got more coverage on what was set to be a slow news day – but that’s the joy of PR. You can plan for most things but the death of a former Prime Minister doesn’t usually find its way on to your contingency documents.

(Here’s a great video featuring Fay discussing the launch of Little Red)

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Rich started PRexamples.com in January 2012. He runs consumer PR agency Radioactive PR, which has two offices in the UK. In March 2013, Rich co-founded blogger outreach service bloggabase.com. He tweets about PR stunts, campaigns and other media bits and pieces @RichLeighPR

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