One of the first lessons you learn when working in Public Relations is that your job is not to create a false image but to present the facts in the best possible way. Sometimes the facts are positive, sometimes they are negative, but good communications requires honesty, directness and consistency.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the political controversy surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix was the poor manner in which F1 handled its communications. This enabled the protest movement and particularly the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights to generate global outrage, with near-hysterical reporting and very difficult questions being asked about F1’s moral judgement.
I have been interviewed several times over the last two weeks by Al Jazeera News, the BBC and Sky News. The questions were not easy. Invited onto a popular BBC radio breakfast show, I was being interviewed against a Bahraini, Ali Mushaime, who was taking part in a 10-day hunger strike outside the US Embassy in London. He was protesting against his father’s life sentence in Bahrain for taking part in last year’s demonstrations.
The first question I was asked was how I felt about racing on the blood of the Bahraini people? Not easy to answer, but I did my best.
Fortunately I have 30 years of experience working with international media in F1 and I have dealt with a variety of crises and political controversies; the jailing of our driver Bertrand Gachot in 1991 for assaulting a taxi driver in London, the tragic death of Italian track marshal Paulo Ghislimberti when our Jordan cars collided in Monza, 2000, or the huge socio-political controversy over tobacco sponsorship.
What struck me most about the Bahrain controversy was the complete lack of credible media communications strategy coordinated between FOM, FIA and BIC to the extent that a vacuum was created. This vacuum was inevitably going to be filled by the messages from the protest movement, speculation from the 24/7 media and social networks. It also meant that since the media couldn’t get a proper answer from F1, they asked the drivers, the team bosses, the mechanics; people who should never have been put in that position.
With news organisations not allowed into Bahrain, it was left to sports journalists to report on the protests from the Shia villages. This was a huge error, for sports journalists are not used to seeing riots and the sense of horror in their reports was therefore all the greater.
It was only when the majority of F1 media started to report that the streets of Manama were very calm, and life appeared quite normal, that the tide began to turn. And ultimately it was with the appearance of Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock alongside the Crown Prince of Bahrain that the media finally had some proper, credible answers. Suddenly it no longer seemed like a crisis.
Over the next 12 months the debate will continue about whether F1 should be racing in Bahrain or not. Whatever the decision, the one thing F1 must do is to take its responsibilities seriously, communicate its messages effectively, and preferably base them on facts.