Pandemic PR: How sport has proven the power of authenticity

In a ‘normal’ world, professional sport is polarising enough. Stars are regularly antagonised in tabloids, and an executive-level scandal never seems to be too far away either. PR is therefore a hugely important tool for the industry, as an ability to dictate public narratives is a vital part of ensuring that their brands remain successful, and more importantly, affluent. With that in mind, a social climate like our current one raises the PR stakes even higher. So, as you might expect, there have been some individuals and organisations that have emerged from this period with a better reputation than ever before, whereas some have skulked out of lockdown with their egos – and their brand appeal – rather battered and bruised.

At this point, Marcus Rashford and his admirable campaign to secure free meals for vulnerable children is probably one of the first examples to spring to mind, and indeed, that is certainly worth pointing out. However, we’ll get to that a bit later on, as first of all I’d like to guide you towards the sport of motor racing – an industry which has offered plenty to talk about in the last few months.

A prank gone wrong: The dangers of misinterpretation

To begin with, there’s the remarkable story of Daniel Abt and his virtual impersonator. As highlighted by Babel’s recent webinar the absence of large-scale events has led to companies resorting to virtual events in order to promote whatever it is that they do. Sports franchises are no exception, and so it came as little surprise when the FIA Formula E Championship – a prestigious competition centred around eco-friendly electric race cars – decided to host its own tournament in virtual form.

The idea was that the real-life racers would compete against each other on a popular video game platform, which would then be livestreamed and broadcast to fans worldwide. As it turned out, one of Audi’s racing drivers, Daniel Abt, wasn’t actually very quick on the simulator in question. So, with seemingly nothing to lose, Abt enlisted 18-year-old professional simulator driver, Lorenz Horzing, to drive under his name instead. According to Abt, this was a stunt which was never about winning, but instead about giving the fans a funny story to laugh about. Unfortunately for him, Abt’s employers saw it rather differently.

From Audi’s point of view, Abt had cheated and therefore jeopardised the integrity of their brand on a global stage. The Bavarian manufacturer saw this is an unforgivable offence, and within a couple of days Abt was relieved of his duties as part of its real-life racing team. In the space of a weekend, Daniel Abt had gone from being a poster boy of sustainable fuels to an outcast of the sport he had been involved with since 2014.

While the significance of public relations is what caused his sharp downfall, PR was also Abt’s route back to a favourable public image. He responded quickly with a heartfelt apology, and a €10,000 donation to Unicef to match. Overall, it was an effort that went rewarded, as just a month or so later Abt got picked up by NIO – another team on the Formula E grid.

Why words must be backed up by actions

On the whole, it’s a story which is fairly harmless, but the PR successes and failures within motorsport in recent times run deeper than that. It’s no secret that motor racing is heavily-dominated by white men, so when Lewis Hamilton called for a change of culture to promote greater inclusion, the sport’s response was under intense scrutiny – and rightly so.

In some sectors, the response was as you would hope. Mercedes, the manufacturer which employs Hamilton himself, responded with a pledge to correct its own lack of diversity amongst staff. To draw attention to the matter, the team chose to paint its traditionally silver F1 cars in a striking black livery instead this year, and as a result the scheme has constantly been in the public eye.

However, not everybody quite matched that stance. Hamilton’s competitors came under scrutiny when only a handful of them chose to take the knee alongside him before the start of the first race of the year. At the second race, it looked as though the message of unity would be stronger, however the F1 organisation decided not to broadcast the symbolic images. Instead, when the drivers went to kneel on the starting line, the TV director cut away to some pre-recorded footage of Red Bull-branded sky-divers. At best, this was a clumsy piece of camerawork, at worst it was an insight into the misaligned priorities of the organisation. What we do know for sure though, is that it caused widespread disappointment and damage to F1’s public reputation.

The best way to strike a chord with your audience? Keep it authentic

As you can see, it’s very easy for people to get their messaging wrong. But somebody who got things spot-on during lockdown was the aforementioned Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford. Driven by his own childhood experiences, the 22-year-old ran a campaign to pressure the government into reversing its decision not to provide food vouchers for disadvantaged children beyond term-time. Initially, Boris Johnson stood firm on his decision, however Rashford continued to raise awareness and pressure the government regardless. Eventually, the prime minister caved in, and went on to announce that the lockdown food voucher initiative would indeed continue through the Summer after all.

Undoubtedly, securing food for vulnerable children was a triumph for our society, but if you were to be cynical, you could also say that it was a triumph in public relations. Since that project, Rashford’s stock has sky-rocketed, and that’s largely down to his authenticity. If Rashford had conceded defeat when his initiative was first rebuffed, some may have questioned how passionate he really was about it. But he didn’t give up, he kept striving to make a change and, eventually, that change happened. It’s that degree of authentic compassion, and belief in the values that he promoted, which is what really boosted his reputation in the public eye. Most importantly, this wasn’t a case of a young footballer seeking out positive PR; this was an instance of somebody doing something commendable and getting the positive recognition that they deserved.

In fact, that theme is seen throughout the anecdotes mentioned today. Disingenuity cost Daniel Abt his job, but an authentic reaction earned him a new one. Mercedes’ initiative to improve workplace diversity was well-received because the company appears to truly mean it, whereas TV blunders have left some fans feeling as though the Formula One executives don’t. It just goes to show that when it comes down to PR, it’s vital that there is substance behind the messages that you choose to promote.

So, if your business or a company that you know has taken some positive steps this year, why not get in touch and see how the Babel team can help spread the word?

James Bowers

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