Possibly the longest-awaited cliffhanger in business aviation history ended this week, when Very Light Jet pioneer Eclipse Aviation finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Of course, this being Eclipse, the story doesn’t end there, and there is now much speculation as to what recently-arrived investor and CEO Roel Pieper’s plans mean for investors, customers, suppliers and the rest of it.
Despite the fact that the much needed EASA and AvioNG certifications are finally in place, it seems hard to see how this aircraft can ever be truly competitive. We’re a long way from Vern Raburn’s original low price forecasts from the aircraft, and it looks probable that this business model can only work on the basis of far smaller volumes and much higher unit prices. So, if you have about $3 million to spend on an aircraft, would you go for the very compact Eclipse, or Cessna’s similarly priced but more spacious Citation Mustang, or the forthcoming offerings from Embraer or HondaJet? And would established field service support around the world be of interest to you?
Putting that on one side, we’ve been thinking about the PR lessons this episode has taught us. No bones about it, for a long time Eclipse had terrific success in promoting their story through the media. They very effectively exploited the mould-breaking message of their product and the ‘Jetson’-style idea of a plane so cheap that it could almost be parked on every driveway. Armed with a sexy proposition, a charismatic then-founder CEO, and a very dogged communications operation they blazed a trail for their business aviation story through the mainstream media and beyond.
However, what has left a sour taste in the mouth is that at some stage (and people will debate when this happened), the PR promise was decoupled from reality. As Dave Fleet argues cogently, managing expectations is absolutely crucial to successful PR (defined as engendering mutual understanding, respect and trust between an organisation and its publics). If you set very high expectations, you absolutely have to deliver in terms of performance, or at the very least openness and accountability. This plainly wasn’t part of the thought process at Eclipse – and perhaps they felt they’d allowed the stakes to become so high that this just wasn’t an option any longer – so, instead, we got continued promises of a brighter tomorrow, and recriminations and scapegoating of others in the meantime. Unedifying, to say the least, but commercially dumb too, because even the least questioning of their followers began to smell a rat.
As a further twist, the ‘megaphone PR’ strategy under Raburn has been followed by near silence and apparently secrecy under Pieper. So, effectively, two contrasting case studies in high risk PR in immediate succession.
So, does PR really matter to a business? Well, plainly, very much so. After they way in which Eclipse’s communications have been handled over the past two years, it seems pretty unlikely that even the most miraculous new business plan will succeed in the absence of the public and media trust which have been squandered.