Features - News Feature

NOVEMBER 9, 2000

Angels, PR People and The Prisoner


Wim Wemders' film Wings of Desire is, to me, the greatest couple of hours that cinema has ever delivered. In case you haven't seen it, the story is that of an angel who chooses to forsake eternity in the sky above Berlin for the chance to feel the wind on his face, to know the difference between green and red and to say 'now' instead of 'forever' whilst walking the most soulful streets on earth.

Wim Wemders' film Wings of Desire is, to me, the greatest couple of hours that cinema has ever delivered. In case you haven't seen it, the story is that of an angel who chooses to forsake eternity in the sky above Berlin for the chance to feel the wind on his face, to know the difference between green and red and to say 'now' instead of 'forever' whilst walking the most soulful streets on earth.

There's a point when he achieves this, finding himself lying in the road with a nosebleed, a shocking headache and a dreadful haircut. He's a human at last and, since going 'legit' and abandoning my former existence as a PR person, that's exactly how I feel every morning. Nosebleeds and headaches are few but the bad hair's in place... and so too is the sense of experiencing everything anew.

You see outside of Formula 1, being the mouthpiece of the sport can be a very wearing business. For the sake of the drivers, championships, manufacturers, teams and circuits you represent you will perform oral sex upon the editor (regardless of personal hygiene) if it gleans a story that more than three people will ever read.

In the non-F1 world there are tree types of media. Firstly the specialists, whose sole purpose in life is to report whatever it is your client is up to. These are the good guys with whom you go out, get legless and put up in your hotel room because you're all in it together and any PR would be wasted on them and their readers.

Then there's the bread and butter of local media of course, and again it's hardly a challenge when the breaking news is that Eleanor, the black French dwarf lop-eared bunny, has gone astray. Next to that the glamour of local 17-year-old future F1 star Tommy Tetley's Formula Aardvark victory is manna from heaven to the local mob.

In motor sport you only really prove yourself by getting into the glossy magazines, national TV, national radio and - oooh, I'm getting a warm tingly feeling now - the national press. The all-consuming mission to generate clippings to shower like confetti over your client as they reach for the baby oil and think about all those millions upon millions of readers. Just one small problem: to national media motor sport is but Formula 1 and fatalities.

As a proving-ground for deviousness and stamina, a season of non-F1 press is, without doubt, better than training for the CIA, Mossad and SAS in one hit. For a start nobody pays you very much, meaning that you have to work about 27 accounts at once to pay the rent. My record number of events for a season was ten rallies, thirteen touring car weekends, three provincial motor shows, one national motor show, three pre-season media days, two client media days, the British Grand Prix and four awards ceremonies. And I had it easy compared to some.

Any coverage of motor racing outside Formula 1 is generated by young, enthusiastic people who don't mind that they're working 40 seven day weeks in a year and can't afford a holiday at the end of it because, like any driver or engineer, they're working towards Formula 1. After three, four, five years they aim to stop writing entire features in the style of whatever publication it is they're wooing, creating and sending reams of wasted releases, never again have to make a hundred phone calls just to get one crummy story because they'll finally be where the media wants to be... except they won't.

A few years ago around 21 bright young things started out around Britain promoting anything from karts to Superbikes and of these there were only a couple of duds, the rest varying from hard working outstanding... yet only three have made it to Formula 1. Moreover, these are the PRs with whom the media go for a chat rather than simply to ask a question.

You might think that it's because at F1 level the opportunities are few, but in 2000 there were 40 press officers between the 11 teams - among a total of over 100 people working in media roles. You can double that number by adding in sponsors, suppliers and car manufacturers, treble it with circuits, TV companies, race sponsors and the like. And on an average wage of $50,000 that's a lot of money to spend on this little community before they've got computers, printers, headed paper, press packs, media guides, media dinners, media breakfasts, press launches and days out canoeing with the drivers to play with. Tens of millions of dollars spent largely on people who don't know a Formula 3 from a fighter plane.

The thing is, though, that motor sport press and PR doesn't fit in F1, and neither do the people who do it. They would sooner eat their own vomit than put their name to a release about the dynamic new alco-pop brand appearing as third associate sponsor. They want to let the journalists have what they want before they even knew that they wanted it and that a dollar spent on anything else is a dollar wasted. Yet increasingly the Press Office is treated like an extension of the Paddock Club at ever greater expense.

Insane? The journalists are heading that way. With Annie Bradshaw and Melanie Holmes lost to them next year, life will more than ever resemble that of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner running frantically through a world full of bright colors trying to discover who is Number One.

In fact I think that all F1 journalists should be equipped with blue and white blazers and Lotus Sevens at every race. They seek out somebody in a familiar uniform and ask whether their technical director's available for a chat, only to find out that they're Press Officer Number Three, responsible solely for the test driver and the catering department. Please go and find Press Officer Number Two who handles all race engineering questions and the equal status driver who always finishes behind his teammate.

Number Two is duly found, smiling amid the abnormally bright flora in the awning of Motorhome Number Three but the request makes them look sympathetic and regretful. 'Didn't you know I cover all members of staff born to the north of the equator? You really need to speak to Press Officer Number Five but, from experience, any technical matters aren't up for discussion by the technical director. Upon what subject were you wishing to converse? The performance of our new test driver... well that should really be the senior test engineer, why don't you call our office when you get home and Press Officer Number Four will try and schedule something. Be seeing you.'

Some teams avoid such confusion and employ fewer people all programmed with the same answer: no. For example a scribe has a bright idea and seeks out his friendly press officer - 'Is it possible to do a story on your race director's home life?' 'Well ordinarily yes, but at the moment there is a book on one of the shelves in the living room which clashes with our third associate sponsor's livery, so no.'

Imagine a world where press officers shared the interests and enthusiasms of their clientele in the media, where they could sit and yarn about their favorite races, about great drivers who never made it and the good and bad of the sport from stem to stern. There would be anarchy! Meanwhile if anyone needs a good journalist after one of theirs is found hiding in a corner muttering 'questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself' then look no further than the press officers on a rally, at a Formula 3 meeting or in Touring Cars. They won't be doing anything else for a while.