Richard Branson loves a PR stunt. If something will get him or one of his brands in the news, he is a happy man. But in December 2012 he was left feeling like a turkey when the spotlight shone on him for all the wrong reasons.

Virgin Mobile US ran an advent calendar campaign, encouraging people to visit every day as they revealed a new festive image.

On 8 December, an excited woman is eagerly awaiting a surprise gift. A man is playfully covering her eyes so he can keep up the suspense, while holding the small-boxed present in his other hand. All very lovely so far… until the caption:

“The gift of Christmas surprise. Necklace? Or Chloroform?”

The ad rightly received condemnation immediately for its association with sexual assault. The Everyday Sexism project – who document experiences of sexism, harassment and assault to show how bad the problem is – asked people to tweet Richard Branson and Virgin Mobile US “if they agreed that using rape/domestic violence jokes to sell products isn’t ok”.

And you thought regular Christmas cracker jokes were bad.

The telecoms business did not belong to Richard Branson, as he had sold his stake to Sprint Nextel Corporation three years earlier. Sprint license the use of the ‘Virgin’ name from him though – and as he is very much the face of the brand, he was angry at the damage this could do to his business.

In a statement, he wrote:

“Having just seen, for the first time, the Virgin Mobile US advert which has upset many today, I agree it is ill-judged. Although I don’t own the company, it carries our brand. I will speak to the team there, make my thoughts clear and see what can be done about it. Virgin Mobile US usually get these things right, although on this occasion it is clear they have gone too far.

Update: Having spoken with them just now they acknowledge a dreadful mistake was made, the advert will be withdrawn within the hour, never to be seen again.”

What does good look like?

Richard Branson’s swift response and action certainly helped prevent this doing any more damage. Responding quickly and sincerely to an error is important. Apologise for any mistakes and do something about it to rectify the situation.

An email from Virgin Mobile USA head of brand marketing Ron Faris – seen by Buzzfeed – also identified a ‘lesson learned’ that might have prevented this sorry affair.

He wrote “This was a rogue post by an external agency that was not approved by the Virgin Mobile USA brand marketing group. We have since spoken to our outside agencies and reinforced our company policy. In no way does Virgin Mobile USA support sexism or domestic violence. Our efforts towards eradicating youth homelessness clearly reflect the types of issues we tackle in the face of adversity. We apologize deeply to anyone who has been offended by this posting. It was removed early this morning”

When using agencies, it is essential they understand your sign off process, your tone of voice and your policies. They work for you – so make sure they are aware of how they should behave, just as you would an employee.