Let’s Get R.E.A.L.: Formula 1’s Red Bull Team isn’t going anywhere

Welcome back to Let’s Get R.E.A.L: the series in which we evaluate a reputational RISK for businesses, exemplified through a recent news EVENT. We then provide our ANALYSIS of the reputational impact, citing findings from Argyle’s Data Intelligence team and conclude with LESSONS (together, R.E.A.L.) that leaders and organizations should consider.

Over the last 74 years, Formula 1 has garnered a niche, but global fanbase. The sport’s ten teams — all major brands or car companies — and its twenty drivers venture around the globe, racing at tracks and circuits on six continents. The roaring “Tifosi,” the affectionate term for Ferrari fans, have been heard yelling “Forza Ferrari” since the storied Italian manufacturer introduced its racecar to the sport’s first Driver’s Championship in 1950. Formula 1’s recent boom in popularity, particularly among North American viewers, can be attributed to the hit Netflix series Drive to Survive. Each season’s ten episodes chronicle the drama that occurs off track, which, many might argue, is far more riveting than the racing itself.

As the sport continues to flourish with strategic expansion into U.S. markets from coast to coast, the organization has become increasingly susceptible to reputational risks that have the potential to disrupt basic team operations or cause them to collapse entirely.

One team in particular, Oracle Red Bull Racing, is facing the majority of that reputational danger. As Formula 1 journalist Will Buxton has emphasized time and again on Drive to Survive, “everyone hates a winner.” Max Verstappen has dominated Formula 1 with Red Bull since the beginning of the 2022 season in a display of talent unlike anything in the modern era, ending all-star Lewis Hamilton’s seven consecutive driver’s championship streak. Breaking records for the highest number of wins in a season and most consecutive wins, among other history-making statistics, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen continues to write himself into the F1 history books.

But Verstappen’s wins do not come without consequence…

  • On February 5th of this year, Red Bull announced that Team Principal Christian Horner, responsible for all team operations, was under investigation by the team for allegations of misconduct against an employee.
  • Subsequently, on February 28—just days ahead of the 2024 season’s first Grand Prix race—the team’s lawyer cleared Horner of any wrongdoing. Perhaps even more shockingly, the following day, WhatsApp messages between Horner and the alleged employee were released via a Google Drive folder. Media reported that the messages were a combination of work-related discussion and inappropriate content.
  • Finally, and most controversially, on March 8, 2024, Red Bull suspended the female employee who accused Horner of inappropriate behavior.

Several elements of Red Bull’s public response could use improvement. Before pivoting away from  the investigation, the team could have addressed its knowledge of the WhatsApp messages and dismissal of the accusing employee. Foundations of trust are built on transparency, the public acknowledgement of new information as it comes to light. And Red Bull’s decision not to rely solely on independent counsel for the investigation and to clear Horner in such short order with no explanation lessens public trust in the team.

Ultimately, however, the communications response sufficed, and senior leaders and communications professionals can glean a great deal from Horner’s management of the media frenzy. After being questioned about the investigation by a reporter, Horner successfully pivoted and highlighted why the race weekend merited the journalist’s focus. Instead of adding to the media frenzy with a reactive statement, Red Bull remained level-headed and quiet about the issues facing its leader.

Diving deeper, Argyle’s Data Intelligence team analyzed social conversation and traditional media coverage during each major milestone of the investigation. It was concluded that mentions of the investigation decreased substantially once the race weekend began. This illustrates the profound efficacy of Red Bull’s strategic decision to gear the discussion away from the investigation and toward its high performance, hard work and success. Yes, the team caused the public to question its decision-making in clearing Horner of any wrongdoings before the first race and dismissing the accusing employee, but data illustrates a tangible shift away from the investigation and toward the excitement of the race weekend.

Ultimately, when a brand shifts away from reputational difficulties and toward its values—high performance in the case of Red Bull Racing—it deafens the noise of the crisis.

So, what lessons can we glean following our analysis of this recent event?

  1. Transparency and impartiality during investigations are critical. The steps Red Bull took in the wake of the investigation were neither tactically sound nor appropriate. They all suggested an intent to conceal any inappropriate behavior from Red Bull’s Christian Horner.
  2. Ahead of dealing with media in a spokesperson role, you must learn how to answer difficult questions. The response executives and companies employ during difficult interviews has a profound impact on the company’s ability to emerge resiliently. Not only was Christian Horner’s poise during interviews noticeable, it was palpable. Fans were left excited about race weekends and ready to engage with the team, as well as the brand.
  3. When in doubt, pivot back to your brand’s values. Red Bull shifted the narrative during the race weekend with a superb performance at the Bahrain Grand Prix, securing first and second place for the team. More importantly, it drove conversation to that performance and its implications for the remaining races of the F1 season and year.

About the Author

Sarah Tenner

Sarah is a trusted professional on Argyle’s Data Intelligence team, where she specializes in extracting digestible insights from large sums of data. As a member of Argyle’s Reputation, Risk and Advisory practice, Sarah’s data-driven approach helps to root fast-paced counsel in an understanding of an organization’s risk landscape both on- and offline.

Based in Washington, D.C., her work in thought leadership has been published for large companies’ marketing efforts, and her knowledge of policy and regulation continues to take her far. Sarah continues to build upon her specialization in Data Intelligence and crisis planning/communications with the brightest industry minds at Argyle, where she has established herself as a dependable leader.

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