Working in F1: The role of a Press Officer

By on Saturday, March 22, 2014
Formula 1's media gurus, pictured in Brazil last year. Caterham F1 Team.

Formula 1's media gurus, pictured in Brazil last year. Caterham F1 Team.

Being a Press Officer for a Formula 1 team might be a dream job for any motorsport enthusiast but even the most passionate one would have some second thoughts, considering the responsibility and the titanic work involved.

Yes, it does mean you are right where things happen and receive information first hand. But it also means you have to keep contact with thousands of people, answer a ton of emails, deal with hundreds of happy or unhappy journalists and spend more time in a hotel room than in your own living room.

There are people unafraid to take on such a task and Tom Webb is one of them. Tom is Head of Communication for Caterham’s Formula 1 team, which translates as being in charge of all the communication that is done for Formula 1, GP2 and Caterham Racing Academy, as well as a role in Caterham Group.

But there is one thing that has made his job easier. In this world where you have to be very careful with everything you say or to avoid upsetting sponsors or the fans, he was empowered to do things which other teams don’t even dare to think about, encouraged to even say yes to the most unusual requests and to break the wall between the fans and the sport they love.

Tom Webb, in green, is Caterham's head of communications. Caterham F1 Team

Tom Webb, in green, is Caterham's head of communications. Caterham F1 Team

With up to 7,500 contacts in his phone one will probably wonder how is it possible for him not to mix them up and to remember who is from where. “I do it alphabetically: Composites, Technology and Innovation, F1, GP2. My phone enables me to do my job,” Tom says. “When we have a good day there are lots of emails to respond to, and when we have a bad day it’s usually even more. On average I get about 120 emails a day.”

Tom joined Caterham on December 2009 as employee number 33. Tom initially worked for Red Bull – the drinks side, not the racing team - but found himself unemployed at the beginning of 2009 after the company restructured. “I saw that as both good and bad. It was good because it meant I could go on holiday for quite a long time. It was the first break I’ve had in my working life for 15 years.  It was bad because I didn’t have a job.”

When three new teams were provided with entries in November 2009, Tom emailed all of them and said he was ready. “I didn’t hear from the other two guys but I got an email almost immediately back from someone called Silvi Schaumloeffel, who is Mike Gascoyne’s partner. She was one of the first four people to start working with what was then called Lotus and she was doing marketing, PR, HR, accounts, IT, she was doing everything. I went to go and meet her. We had tea in London,” he recalls.

After an hour’s chat came the question. ‘Do you want to work in Formula1?’ Tom said yes. ‘Do you want to go to all the Formula 1 races?’ Again yes. ‘Can you move to Norfolk?’ Again, yes. “A day later I got an email from her saying ‘come and see us next week’. I went up on a Monday and the following Monday I started work there.”

Van der Garde's run at Spa stunned the team. Caterham F1 Team

Van der Garde's run at Spa stunned the team. Caterham F1 Team

Tom’s dream job was working for a specific team in Formula 1 - he didn’t tell which one - so to be offered a job as a Press Officer for a Formula 1 team was a complete dream. “My father brought me up as a motor racing addict. He used to race cars himself and one of my earliest memories is standing on his lap, I shouldn’t say this, while he was driving a Ferrari 308 GTB to go and pick up a baby sitter for me, while my parents were going out. And I was standing on his lap, holding the steering wheel and he was driving.”

“It’s kind of a dream times 10 because having joined a new team, at the start of that new team’s life, I was given the opportunity by [team owner] Tony Fernandes to basically shape whatever I wanted to do,” he says. "He said ‘I want you to say yes to stuff’. Tony’s opinion was ‘F1 needs to be kicked up the arse and we can do that. There are great opportunities for us to knock down some of the walls that stop people know what’s going on in Formula 1. I don’t want you to walk around being all arrogant. I want you to be cool and when somebody wants something done I want you to say yes and then work it out to make it happen.  I want you to have a sense of humour about what you do and to do stuff that other people wouldn’t.’ So not only that I got my dream job, I got my dream job and was empowered to do whatever I kind of want it to do. So it’s a dream job and I was given the kind of wide open space to do whatever I want. Amazing”, Tom adds.

Formula 1 has developed with technology, with one of the greatest aspects being the introduction and evolution of social media site Twitter. Caterham was one of the first teams to get a stranglehold on the site and use it to their advantage.

“The business kind of changed from where I grow up cause when I first start working I had no email. The mobile phone had been invented but you didn’t have them. I used to type everything on a type writer,” Tom says. “We had Tipp-Ex if we made mistakes and then we used to stuff all the Press Releases into envelopes and post it to people. The idea of social media didn’t exist. Then the internet arrived and I remember the first time I sent an email I didn’t understand what is was going to do and how it worked. I wasn’t even sure that the other person had an email address. And now social media is kind of what we do.”

It's Tom's job to look after this lot. Caterham F1 Team

It's Tom's job to look after this lot. Caterham F1 Team

“So I do the traditional PR, the traditional Media relations, I do the kind of strategic things and in the mix of all of that I have this social media world that I can play in. We can make cool videos on Youtube, we can put good stuff on Facebook, like a tour garage, post really cool funky images on Pinterest and we tell everything that we do on Twitter. So Twitter is a way of being able to talk to people almost as if they’re sitting next to you or standing next to you in the garage. We can almost give them that feeling that they are part of the team. It’s an amazing opportunity,”

“Tony believes it’s one of the most important and powerful tools that you’d have. Because it means you can go around the journalists and you can talk directly to the people who care about what you do. Not only that you talk to them but you can talk with them. So we can do a two way dialogue with the fans.”

Caterham attempted to produce everything via social media but eventually introduced more traditional methods for the press. But social media remains a vital part of the team’s operation as it’s a crucial part of getting fans closer to the sport.

“We use a strategy that we call ‘making the exclusive inclusive’. Formula 1 is an exclusive environment. Just to get into a circuit you need a ticket. To get into the Formula 1 Paddock you need a special pass and there are limited numbers of those passes. So it’s an exclusive environment. One of the reasons why it has to be is because there are very prestigious brands who want to know that they can be involved in something that does require some limited access. We think Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and all of the other things that we use, what they do is they enable the Formula 1 fans interact with what’s going on in Formula 1.”

Tom cites an example from the team’s first race in Bahrain four years ago which startled many of the established journalists.

The infamous Tweet that surprised journalists.

The infamous Tweet that surprised journalists.

“When we joined Formula 1 not many people were using Twitter. I think that’s because other people were scared and continue to be scared of not having control on what’s going on in an environment where you have to be able to communicate immediately with people. Mike Gayscone tweeted from the pit wall the lap before we boxed Jarno Trulli for the first time in the race; that we were going to box him on the next lap. I was in the Media Center when he did that and there were people who turned around to me and said ‘Why would you do that?’, ‘What a stupid thing to do’. I said ‘Why would you not do that?’ They said ‘That’s why you don’t understand Formula 1’. Ok, Mike Gayscone has been in F1 for 25 years, he knows Formula 1. What do we risk from telling people we’re going to pit? When we’re racing for 18/19th, what is the risk in that? There are 17 cars ahead of us that don’t really care if we’re going to pit. If there are a couple of cars behind us then yes, we do care about that. But what we’ve done is we’ve used Twitter to tell fans something they’ve never ever heard of. So why not do that? Sure, as we’ve developed and as we got more and more competitive, we don’t have the opportunity to do that quite as much, but we still do it. We still like to shock people who think I would never be able to do that.”

Tom told us about a moment when one of the teams ahead of Caterham, “an old school, classy team”, went into Twitter. He remembers reading their first ever tweet and thinking it must have been through about 17 different approvals before they’ve been allowed to post it because it was so official, almost like a Press Release. “Our Twitter has always been personal, the way that we use it is we like to have a tone of voice that sounds. It is somebody’s personality, mine and it’s been of several other people that were involved in it. That account was the complete opposite. An official Twitter account which said: announcement - we are going to do Q1 in ten minutes time. That’s horrible. The Twitter users know that and they don’t interact with that. [We’d do it as] ‘The weather conditions here are horrible right now. We’d rather be in bed but as we are at a Formula 1 race we’ve got to go and do qualifying’. And people will say that’s the kind of conversation they have with their friends when talking about the sport they love. We didn’t introduce Twitter to Formula 1 but I think what we did is probably encouraged lots of other people in F1 to use it in a way that does make it inclusive.”

Sometimes the best has to be made of a bad situation. Caterham F1 Team.

Sometimes the best has to be made of a bad situation. Caterham F1 Team.

Tom believes that in a sport where fans tend to support drivers, Caterham has carved out a niche.

“Formula 1 is different than other sports. If you’re a football fan, you’re a club fan first and then your national team and then it’s just taking as read that you like football. Formula 1 fans like a driver [first] and they like a team secondly, and then they like another team. I think for lot of people we are probably their second team. There are lots of fans who will follow the driver no matter what team they’re in. I think with us, we are lucky because people like us as a team. Certainly it has an effect which drivers we have but I believe a lot of people like us because we are Caterham and we have a certain way of doing things that maybe other teams don’t. We are in the mid-field on Twitter and that’s not reflective of our track performance but I think it’s reflective of what we do in terms of the social media so I’m very proud.”

When asked about the kind of tweets which have more success to the followers he replied, with no hesitation, it’s the funny ones, the ones that people don’t expect to read.

“When Giedo [Van der Garde] finished Q1 in P3 [at the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix], there was general disbelief in the team that he got that high up because we’ve never ever been that high up. He, himself, was a bit unsure about it. I was looking at the timing screens thinking where he has gone, because his name was gone from the screens, not thinking I should look at the top. ‘Er, God, he’s in third.’ So I said on Twitter just ‘Er’ and that got a lot of support because people like that kind of thing. I think when you’re really honest people respond to that, much like they do in real life. I’ve always been a firm believer of the best form of PR is honesty and if you do that in Twitter you get same love and respect than you get in real life.”

“We get a lot of people saying ‘you guys are really funny and I really like the way that you talk about the stuff’. I’ve never yet had anybody say ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ so that means maybe we haven’t stepped over the mark yet. Maybe that means we can be a little bit more vocal. You’ve got to push the boundaries.”

On a professional level, Tom rates the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix as a high point. “Being able to say at the end of the Brazilian GP ‘we’ve got our 10th place back’ because we believe it was ours and we’ve achieved it by investing in people, resources, infrastructure, working hard, and being able to say that was a hugely emotional moment for me and I know what it meant for the 300 people that worked for the team.”

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