There IS such a thing as bad publicity – the F1 PR disaster in Bahrain

The organizers decided to ignore widespread sectarian violence and protest.

If you think, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, here’s a case-in-point.

In the aftermath of the Bahrain Grand Prix, F1 Chief Bernie Eccelstone, has been his usual concoction of candour and enthusiasm. Standing by his decision to have gone ahead with the race, in-spite of the intense sectarian violence that thronged the streets of Manama during race-day weekend, he was at one stage quoted saying, “you know what they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

It was a risky premise that initially paid off. An increased interest in the race due to a violent backdrop, which ultimately led to a more than average TV viewership, had both F1 fans and franchise-owners delighted. For example, the  a firebomb thrown by one of the protesters at a team Force India car ensured days of chatter – something the team had never managed to accomplish even through their driving.

PR 101 - Guns and sport don't mix

But the gains, as predicted, were short-termed. Suddenly scores of people began to criticise the F1’s ‘business as usual’ attitude amidst such unfair treatment of millions. Growing international voices of opposition, began condemning the sporting franchise’s actions blaming them for turning a blind eye to human suffering and societal welfare, in order to focus purely on revenue and television rights. At one stage, even Amnesty International’s Sanjeev Bery bluntly put forth, “it is one thing to hold an event, it is another thing entirely to actively pretend that the host government has committed no human rights violations, when facts on the ground reveal otherwise. Sports organizers don’t have to adopt the PR strategies of repressive governments in order to promote their events.”

It’s been weeks since the incident and the press still have no signs of letting up.

There’s a definite lesson to be learned here. Though initially validated, the silver lining is simply a short-term gamble that will quickly lose its shine. Spinning bad publicity or assuming that just being ‘talked about is good enough’, is what the F1 is today realising to be a near-sighted or perilous approach. For what might have been a tempting windfall in the face of a larger problem, has now put the F1’s credibility at grave risk.

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