After an official statement issued on the 12th of March 2020 by McLaren Racing that the team will withdraw from participation in the Australian GP due to one member being tested positive for COVID-19, the entire environment of Formula One has been swallowed by what can be described only as on word: chaos. It took the leaders of F1 to address the issue approximately 12 hours after McLaren pulling out of the grand prix and quite frankly, the public was not too happy about it. What exactly went wrong? What can be learned from this situation? How did other organisations approach the growing issue of pandemic?
The COVID-19 virus pandemic imposed a great threat towards the health of many, having it’s rapid spread in countries such as China and Italy, and continuing to rise in numbers of patients in countries around the globe including Australia, US, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands amongst many other. The world has been trying to fight it since approximately January and more and more places are taking precautionary measures to deal with the sickness. This, in many countries, meant banning events above certain amount of people including postponing sport events and concerts. Situations like this need fast reactions to avoid risk. In this case the reaction has not been so fast.
The decision to postpone the Chinese GP of 2020 came around 13 February. The event was not cancelled, and the incentive has been made to reschedule the GP in a later part of the season. Afterwards, the information about Vietnam putting restrictions on travellers from Italy and China has hit the paddock. With teams like Ferrari and Alpha Tauri and the tyre supplier Pirelli having their headquarters in Italy, that could pose a severe delay for members of teams to arrive for the GP if forced to undertake necessary quarantine of 14 days. Very shortly before the buzz in Melbourne began to start for the then upcoming Australian GP, we got to know that the organisers of Bahrain GP have at first stopped the sales of tickets for the GP that was supposed to be held on the 22nd of March, then deciding to let the race take place but under closed doors for spectators. Before the time stamp of around two weeks before everyone head over to Melbourne, there have been already voices around about the fears related to the GP taking place.
The closer it got to the time of the GP, the faster the situation began to escalate. Many drivers, especially Lewis Hamilton, have been very vocal about the situation. In an interview directly before the start of the Australian GP, he admitted: “I am really very, very surprised that we are here. I think it’s really shocking that we are all sitting in this room. There are so many fans here today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late, but we have already seen this morning that [US president Donald] Trump has shut down the borders with Europe to the States and you are seeing the NBA being suspended, yet Formula One continues to go on”.
At this point in Melbourne, already 8 team members have been in self-isolation after showing symptoms that can be linked with the COVID-19 virus. And afterwards, the worst everyone could expect happened. During midday on Thursday, McLaren Racing decided to pull out of the GP after one of their team members was tested positive for the virus. The leadership and crisis decision making of the team should be applauded, since such a hard decision was made in almost an instant, regarding of the repercussions the team would face in such a situation. This brings us to the core problem and its definition: crisis communication in times of adversity.
No one can argue against the pandemic being perceived as a sort of crisis. And in such times, risks need to be evaluated, decisions need to be made fast and communication needs to occur to secure and contain the situation as well as possible. This brings us to the definition of:
«crisis communication» is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organisation facing a public challenge to its reputation.
The decision to cancel the Australian GP came in around 12 hours after McLaren decided to pull out of the race. 12 long hours of people awaiting the decision, not only on the track as well as outside of the track. The situation became so ridiculous that different outlets were reporting contrary things at the same time. And then as if this situation was not chaotic enough Melbourne was struck by the morning and people as well as some team crews began to spill onto the track, posing even greater risk to their health that possibly before. The gates have been shut and fans were waiting in front of them to get in, without any idea what was actually going to happen. All of this could have been avoided.
It is obviously understandable at this point that Formula One is a big business evolving around millions in monetary value. In the last week of February - beginning of march during a sponsorship event at Silverstone, Ross Brawn said "I mean if the whole economy shut down completely, that would have a much more serious impact than the coronavirus. But the coronavirus is a very serious threat, so we have to take the necessary reactions". Lewis Hamilton when asked what could possibly stand in the way of cancelling the GP simply responded “Cash is king”. During Wednesday, the CEO of Liberty Media Chase Carey was travelling to Vietnam in order to “save” the situation with the Vietnamese GP that was supposed to debut during the season of 2020, taking place just after Bahrain and before the Chinese GP already postponed in February (so Carey was not even present in Melbourne when the entire drama began to unravel). During the excruciating for many 12 hours of awaiting for the decision, many quoted the legal problems between the organisers, F1 leaders and teams if the GP will be cancelled, and obviously the monetary issues that would come with it.
The inability of Formula One and FIA to come to a fast conclusion and communicate it outside to avoid any risks and potential image damage has brought exactly that: risked the health of visitors and workers as well as without a doubt damaged their image. In an attempt to explain the situation to the audiences and why it took them so long to arrive to a conclusion, in an interview published on f1.com Ross Brawn said “We were very keen to have the race. It’s a very positive event. We wanted to kickstart the Formula 1 season. It is a great race with great fans and a wonderful weekend. We have a big impact on the economy here and it has an impact on our economy as well. Formula 1 has to function, we have to make it work so we looked at the whole situation and when we decided to go, we looked at the different dynamics. Probably what has surprised everyone is the rapid expansion of this problem. The escalation of new cases, certainly in countries like Italy, where it’s gone almost vertical. No one could have expected that.”
Although it is understandable that the situation with the virus escalated very quickly, without a doubt the way it was handled by the officials of F1 has been very poor. In a situation like this, especially due to the attention Formula One receives from it’s fans, a much more consistent and straight forward way of communication must have taken place to avoid the damage done to the image of F1. With the now decision to postpone the Bahrain and Vietnam GP, and even potentially beginning the season in June of this year, too many things are unclear not only for the stakeholders like audiences but the teams, media crews and many more. This is not to say that F1 should have had already everything planned ahead for a situation like this. But they definitely should have put more consideration into figuring this situation earlier on to avoid all of the problems that are rising up now to the surface. Because now, with such a handling, many lost trust in the “care and thought” that F1 and FIA are claiming to exercise.
And with it, there is definitely the blast F1 so desperately wanted to avoid. According to business sources, the FWONK, which is the F1 groups stock, has lost 45% of its market value since the beginning of the year, wiping away about $5 billion in value. Additionally to that, Formula One is now trading below the price when it was bought by Liberty Media.
Looking at how the situation has been handled by other racing series, it becomes pretty clear that F1 could have undertaken a different way. The prime example of this can be Formula E. The route utilised by FE could be seen as somewhat an application of situational crisis communication theory.
«Situational Crisis Communication Theory» is an audience-oriented theory which focuses on stakeholders’ perceptions of crisis situations.
Formula E has been on it since the very beginning. They made sure the decision were made fast and were communicated openly to the public. Recently, they made their most radical decision to postpone any FE season activities for the next two months. They expressed their sadness over not delivering racing to their fans around the globe, but they made the decision based on “avoiding anyone to risk their health during such situation”.
Overall, their attitude and consideration towards the current events has left their image untouched, or even more so improved, as they showed their care towards not only the audiences but also the people working in FE. With the stakeholders obviously upset, yet understanding of this entire situation, Formula E was able to keep its good face in time of crisis. Another good example can be MotoGP and DORNA, as the CEO of DORNA Carmelo Ezepleta made an appearance himself to explain the situation to the fans as of why races are being rescheduled or not taking place. The CEO of Formula One was not even present during the situation in Melbourne and the President of FIA was having fancy dinners on the other side of the globe.
After all, what happened, happened. This entire horrendous situation could have been avoided, or at least leveraged, but unfortunately for most, the milk has been spilled. The only thing Formula One and FIA as an organisations can do as of now is learn from their mistake and utilise a different approach next time anything similar happens. As of now, there are still many questions about the season that remain unanswered. But in a world where everything revolves around millions of dollars, there are many things that need to remain a priority and it cannot be forgotten by the the big bosses and administrators that stakeholders also have a say.