The battle with the words


It is common knowledge that the media play an integral part in promoting almost any sport and are consequently the target of PR representatives when it comes to  putting a spotlight on their teams, sponsors and technological solutions with well-aimed success stories. The political nature of Formula 1, however, has always meant that PR efforts are also used as means to influence decision making and push for regulation changes supporting the agenda of the various players. Opinions are therefore to be treated with much caution, even if they appear to come from the fans.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”. These wise words were once spoken by the emperor Marcus Aurelius many thousand years before media or public relations were even heard of. Yet, the Romans already used these powerful tools to influence public opinion to their benefit and the emperor’s words reveal a well-kept secret of my profession. Most of what we read is an opinion, either by the journalist who writes it, by the interviewee who is quoted, or by the PR representative who publishes it. There is no such thing as a neutral or unintentional message, and certainly not in an environment that is as complex, political and highly delicate as Formula 1.

In most small and medium-sized enterprises, communication efforts are mostly used to shed a (preferably positive) light on the company, the products and activities of that organisation, sometimes to keep negative voices in check, rarely to direct public opinion and policy makers. Bigger corporations and interest groups operating with large sums of money necessarily pursue a different agenda and sporting organisations are no exception. Lobbying is a term mostly used to describe the attempt to influence legislators and governments in politics. However, it is a very effective practice that has also become part of the day-to-day business in the highest class of motorsport.

But what if the survey had been carried out by a different interest group, say, the rights-holding media? Or the tyre manufacturers?

Formula 1 with its unique circle of mighty interest groups such as the FIA, the FOM, the world’s top car manufacturers, technology suppliers, investors and some of the richest and most powerful hosting countries on the globe, is a prime example of a minefield of conflicting political agendas, all battling for power while concealing their intentions in a way that may or may not be obvious to the onlookers. The only way to see through these tactics is to identify the source and profiteer of each information. By identifying the (hidden) interest of the source, we may almost always get clarity on the intention and consequently, put the message in the right perspective.

Interviews with team leaders and key players for example may seem entirely random in terms of their timing and the source of news they appear in. In reality however, nothing in this sport is left to coincidence. Such selected openness often serves only one purpose: to add pressure in existing discussions and get the audience on board for what the players are pursuing behind the scenes. The battle for power in Formula 1 is mostly fought off track and with weaponry that is commonly used in the highest circles of politics. We can easily witness this phenomenon with recent discussions around regulatory changes for 2017, in particular the engine fight between the manufacturers. The critical state of the sport as a whole is a welcome argument for all parties involved, albeit used in opposing ways. It is easy to see why Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is of the opinion that Formula 1 doesn’t need much change and is trying to prove that, in fact, the series is doing just fine, while Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost paints a much darker picture as he argues for a change in the engine regulations to allow for more freedom of development, ostensibly because that would fix Formula 1’s appeal. Such see-through tactics wouldn’t serve their purpose well though as they are too easily rumbled. It is therefore important that additional PR maneuvers are used to undermine the opponents’ messages and reel the audience in, for example by spreading supporting or conflicting information or by calling powerful allies to the arms. That’s how the greats of Formula 1’s past sometimes come back into play, rushing to the side of one or the other in discussions around new regulations and important decisions.

The tyre war is another off-track battlefield ramping up as the players of Pirelli and Michelin put on the armours of communication to convince the decision makers that their solutions will be of greatest benefit to Formula 1 as a whole. The role of a PR representative in this scenario is both proactive – shaping the media agenda to accommodate the messages you need to put out – and restrictive – suppressing and/or overwriting messages that harm the achievement of your organisation’s interests. This can be a huge challenge as these interests may never be too obvious, as your arguments need to be believable, trustworthy and convincing in the debate. On the flipside, you cannot cover them entirely by a smoke screen as this would mean that they are not picked up by the audience. Finding the right tonality, time and target for your message is key. Controversy is usually not wanted in PR – congruence and continuity is a sign of steadiness and secures the trust of your followers. However, in order to stir up the waters, achieve maximum attention and provoke a response, it may be the ideal tactic. One that is certainly perfected by Formula 1’s leading figure Bernie Ecclestone. While some of his statements often seem rash, he is in reality a master of manipulation while controlling his empire with an air of calculating unpredictability. Often, he throws in a well-aimed verbal bombshell and then stands aside and watches as the clueless mob goes for his bait while he has actually set his eyes on a different prey. That’s one of the reasons he has been so successful at ruling the circus almost single-handedly for the past decades and, in passing, managed to become one of the most powerful and richest men in England.

PR is not the only tool in the delicate governing of Formula 1 though. Sometimes, the audience itself is ‘instrumentalised’ without noticing it. A comprehensive global fan survey recently initialised by the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) was promising to be the right answer to Formula 1’s overly political dilemma at a very fragile moment in its history. The future of the sport is at stake. In an effort to give the Formula 1 community a chance to express their opinions, wishes and ideas openly, the survey comprised the feedback of more than 200,000 fans around the world and gained huge attention from the media and representatives of all parties. GPDA Chairman Alex Wurz summarised the results as follows: Fans “want the very same thing that us drivers want”. But is this true? After all, the GPDA is itself a player in the power struggles of Formula 1. Looking at the results of the executive report more closely, some of the responses highlighted by the GPDA look like they’d come in pretty handy for the association: 78 percent of fans think “the drivers should play an active role in formulating and implementing regulation and sporting changes in Formula 1”. An equal amount says “the drivers should promote Formula 1 and enhance its worldwide image and reputation”. Clearly, the fans want the drivers to have more of a say. But what if the survey had been carried out by a different interest group, say, the rights-holding media? Or the tyre manufacturers?

Authentic answers can only be found if the fans are given a true opportunity to participate in the discourse without having to take a side that was attributed to them by the strategists.

Involving the fans is commendable, particularly at a point where the sport has forfeited much of its authenticity and even conservative PR forces have come to realise that Formula 1 has been ignoring the power of the communities for too long. But authentic answers can only be found if the fans are given a true opportunity to participate in the discourse without having to take a side that was attributed to them by the strategists. One-way market research and PR messaging is in the past – dialogue at eye level is the future of communication. One way to achieve this could be to combine social media and traditional market research tools to create a forum for Formula 1 communities that would allow them to discuss, ask, answer, be part of and get involved in Formula 1’s ongoing debates that are actually very much part of the sport’s enduring magnetism. If the players would then pick up on those messages, not just once, but regularly, and actively seek the dialogue, that would be a revolutionary step, and one, that could (almost!) do without PR.

And now, that I’ve become redundant as I revealed the best kept secrets of my profession to you, “let it be your constant method to look into the design of people’s actions, and see what they would be at, as often as it is practicable; and to make this custom the more significant, practice it first upon yourself”. Marcus Aurelius would have loved Formula 1.

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