“Silence is only frightening to people are compulsively verbalizing,” so wrote beat poet William S Burroughs.
I believe that few figures in the public eye could be as well encapsulated by this phrase than F1 puppet master Bernard Charles “Bernie” Ecclestone after his latest outpouring of comments about Formula 1.
Today Bernie promoted the creation of an all-female world championship to act as a support category for F1. As I outlined in a previous blog on the subject, this would be an utterly retrogressive act that would have little but a negative PR impact on the sport and its reputation. It is also ignorant of the wider societal push for greater gender equality that has featured heavily in the media agenda since the start of the year and intimates that women cannot earn a place on the grid through merit, which is totally untrue.
He has simultaneously referred to F1 as a “sick patient” due to the drop in global audience figures, stating that the sport is now too complex for the average viewer, while also mooting the concept of the pole sitter starting the race from twelfth.
Silence is golden
By repeatedly mentioning in the media that F1 is “sick” and that more needs to be done to improve the spectacle, Mr Ecclestone is achieving nothing but reinforcing the beliefs of the sport’s doubters – those who rarely, or never, watch a race and yet declaim that it is dull.
F1 is best served by on-track action, as it always has been. Why overshadow the entertaining race that was the Malaysian GP by commenting that more must be done to increase the entertainment factor or spice up the racing?
As a PR professional, there are occasions there I will advise my clients that less is more. Situations, usually negative, can arise where saying a little less until there is greater detail at hand to make a more informed comment. In these instances you significantly control the damage dealt to the brand’s reputation in the long-run.
I believe this is exactly the case with Formula 1. I will concede that the race in Melbourne was a rather dull affair, not helped by the anticipatory excitement that it was the first of the season. Yet Malaysia has allayed fears of Mercedes’ outright dominance and poor car reliability.
By being so vocal in the media Bernie is only detracting from this, ironically harming the very sport he wishes to promote.
Stop speaking, starting listening
Through silence a space for listening can be created. For far too long F1 has proscribed what fans want rather than taking a step back and actually taking counsel from those who tune in and spend hard-earned money on steeply priced tickets.
The social media situation over the winter showcased this perfectly. After Bernie’s claims that social media and younger fans offered nothing to the sport, F1 has strangely redoubled its efforts on Twitter – to much sarcasm from previously subbed fans.
F1 has a habit of being too reactionary, but I do feel more could be done to listen to fans. The annual FIA fan survey is a positive step but more opportunities could be taken to get more reliable and useful feedback on how to help craft the future of the sport, and social media could play an important role in this.
Transparency is key to improving fan happiness. It may well be that fans don’t feel the sport is broken, in which case don’t fix it. Or that expensive ticket prices are most off-putting, in which case review how costs could be cut without the bias of pleasing the sport’s owners.
While Ecclestone has done much good for the sport, much of which will surely only come to light upon his retirement, perhaps it is time for a fresh thinker to take the helm. Bernie has steered the sport for 30 years as teams and drivers have come and gone, and continuity is often under-rated. But increasingly it feels that the sport is out of kilter with its fans, and perhaps some change is needed at the top.
I realise that this is a mostly negative blog and perhaps ironically goes against my premise of silence over listening but as a long-term fan of a sport I love I wanted to speak out.
What do you think?