David Parkin on how not to handle a crisis

DO you want a bet?

I’m not into motor racing and I’m not much of a gambler, but I’ll put a big bet down on one thing.

Yesterday Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said it is “time to draw a line under” the controversy over accusations about his behaviour towards a female employee.

You might want that Christian, but sorry, it just ain’t going to happen.

The claims against the 50-year-old Horner, which the chief executive and team principal of Red Bull Racing has denied, first emerged over a month ago.

The controversy has made headlines on a regular basis ever since and as much as Horner and Red Bull would like it to go away, it won’t.

Red Bull’s handling of this whole thing is a classic example of how not to do crisis communications.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, might be the master of all he surveys at Red Bull Racing, but pronouncing that a line should be drawn under the issues that have engulfed him in recent weeks just won’t happen in the media – and the tabloid press in particular which has had something of a feeding frenzy on this story.

He chose to make those comments on the day that it emerged that Red Bull has suspended the woman who accused him of inappropriate behaviour.

Red Bull said it “could not comment” on the reasons for the woman’s suspension.

BBC Sport reported that the reason given by Red Bull to the employee was that she had been dishonest.

Every step taken by Red Bull in the last few weeks has been a wrong one.

But in PR terms, I think the suspension of Horner’s accuser is a shoot itself in the foot moment by the racing team which is part of the privately-owned Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull GmbH.

It reeks of chauvinism; a decision taken by a group of wealthy, powerful men used to getting their own way who run a business not used to being put in the spotlight.

You only have to look at the way the original complaint was handled.

Red Bull appointed a senior British lawyer – a King’s Counsel (KC) – to investigate the allegations and report back to its board.

At the end of February Red Bull GmbH announced that the “independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed’, clearing Horner to remain in his position.

In the words of Horner yesterday: “The reality is that there was a grievance raised, it was dealt with in the most professional manner by the group, that appointed an independent KC, one of the most reputable in the land.

“He took time to investigate all the facts. He looked at everything and he came to a conclusion where he dismissed the grievance.

“As far as I’m concerned, as far as Red Bull is concerned, we move on.”

Again Christian, I’m sure you would, but the investigation actually created more questions than answers.

Red Bull has refused to name the lawyer involved or give any insight into the report compiled, or explain why the decision to dismiss the complaint was made.

And on the day after the conclusion of the barrister’s investigation was announced, 79 screenshots of text messages allegedly sent by the Red Bull supremo surfaced online.

The person who sent them from an anonymous email account clearly knew what they were doing.

They were sent to members of the Formula 1 paddock – including FIA president Mohamed ben Sulayem, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as key members of the media all gathered in Bahrain for the first Grand Prix of the new season.

And all this happened just as Horner’s wife, retired Spice Girl Geri, arrived in Bahrain for, what they call in the press, a “show of strength”, walking hand in hand and kissing her husband in the paddock ahead of the race.

Having seen some of the messages and photos allegedly sent by her husband, I actually felt sorry for her having to deliver this very public show of support.

And then, just when Horner and Red Bull were hoping that this whole thing would blow over, Jos Verstappen, father of Max Verstappen, the Red Bull racing driver who has been World Champion for the last three years, said the controversy over Horner was “driving people apart and that the team would “explode’ if Horner remained in his position.

They might say, “Red Bull gives you wings”, but both Red Bull and Horner have been grounded by these events.

As we say in journalism, this story still “has legs”.

The wealthy and successful people who own and run global businesses are more than likely to travel first class or on private jets, they stay in luxury hotels, they are advised by expert lawyers and financiers and they are surrounded by acolytes who deliver their every whim.

So why, when they enjoy the best of everything, do they not invest in good public relations advice?

I’m sure they think they do. I don’t doubt that Baroness Mone and her husband Doug Barrowman were advised by an expensive London media strategy firm for their disastrous interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg in December.

But unlike with lawyers and accountants, paying the big bucks for PR advice doesn’t always deliver the best outcome.

That might be down to the client not listening to the advice, but more probably because crisis communications involves having a deep knowledge of the media and how it works and often not playing it by the book but going with gut feelings and a lot of common sense.

I should know.

And my fees are less than a London agency too (wink).

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THINKING it was spam, I almost deleted an email that dropped into my inbox this week.

But when I read it I’m glad I didn’t.

It started:

“David – I asked AI to give me back a few potential competitors of COPA. Here’s what it came back with:

HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Barclays.

Is this on point, or no?”

Well, err, yes, I have always seen my business alongside these global financial giants, if not a bit ahead of them.

Up to this point I have to admit to having been a little bit sceptical about the power and precision of artificial intelligence, or AI, and its real value in business.

But if a company using it to win lead generation business could use it so accurately to identify the competitors of my business, then perhaps my doubts are completely unfounded.

So I decided to carry out my own research and asked the AI system ChatGPT: “Who is David Parkin who writes a blog?”

Its response:

“I’m sorry for any confusion, but as of my last update in January 2022, there isn’t a well-known figure named David Parkin known specifically for writing a blog.

If you have a specific David Parkin in mind, please provide more context, and I can tailor the response accordingly.”

This AI malarkey is totally rubbish.

Have a great weekend.

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