A crash course in crisis PR management

Once again the Mercedes AMG F1 team dominated headlines after the Spanish Grand Prix, despite Max Verstappen’s stunning debut for Red Bull, which saw him become the series’ youngest ever race winner.

While pushing for a record-equalling 11th consecutive victory, Hamilton and Rosberg tangled on the run between Turn 3 and 4, and delivered the German marques’ first pointless race since the 2012 US Grand Prix. But in doing so, the team also offered an exemplary display of well-honed crisis PR in action, which can serve as a lesson for motorsports teams worldwide.

Containing an explosive atmosphere

The outfit’s PR crew was quick to contain the situation, marshalling the two drivers and the team’s key personnel into the engineering trucks to discuss the matter in private.

While there surely must have been great tension inside the room, this took place away from the world’s media, who had amassed outside and waited impatiently for explanations, data and blame. Only once the collective team had discussed the matter, reviewed the data and confirmed how this would be discussed with the media were spokespeople allowed to engage in interviews.

By taking this approach, the Brackley-based outfit ensured a consistent message was shared with the media, fans and sponsors, maintaining the team’s professional reputation.

A strong leader

Team boss Toto Wolff once again provided a masterclass in how to act as a brand spokesperson. The Austrian remained cool, calm and collected in front of the amassed media, apologetic and honest in his tone, he came across as a man that we could all sympathise with – a crucial attribute in a brand ambassador.

Wolff commented: “A very unfortunate incident triggered by various circumstances, and really difficult to judge. There are quite a few people in the team with racing experience – and an opinion.”

“The opinion differed between all of us. What I take home is that it was an incident that could have been avoided from both sides. It’s so difficult to attribute percentages of blame.”

“I think this time is another challenge for us in order to demonstrate that as a team we can move on from difficult circumstances.”

Showing personality

While Wolff was a model professional throughout the Spanish Grand Prix crisis, other members of his team were more passionate and outspoken.

Nikki Lauda initially laid blame for the incident at the feet of Hamilton in an interview with Sky UK while on his way to the internal meeting. While some might see this as a crack in the armour of the comms team’s control of the situation, his honesty is welcome and refreshing. No one wants to hear robotically-honed brand messages that do not reflect the true nature of the state of affairs.

Similarly, the contrition and angst that Hamilton showed in his media interviews encouraged empathy from viewers, and abated the tension of the situation. The Briton commented: “First of all, a huge apology to all of our team – when I stopped my heart just sank. To not deliver for them, it’s honestly…indescribable how gutted I was.”

Frustration and disappointment are perfectly natural emotions to feel after an incident such as this, but too many brands are afraid to allow their representatives to show this openly, much to their detriment.

Lessons to learn

This crash between Rosberg and Hamilton clearly demonstrates that the best approach for such crises is to promote consistency in the messages that you share; show contrition for the situation (without necessarily accepting or apportioning blame); and above all being transparent and honest.

Following these simple rules can convert a crisis into an opportunity to showcase the best aspects of your brand and reinforce key messages with the media and partners, and prove that a crisis need not be a disaster.

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