Is it just me, or have the press releases and announcements surrounding sailing events and regattas been getting just that little bit more breathless lately? Shakespeare was probably right - 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'
Guy Nowell, keeping an eye on things in Hong Kong
But what if the bottled rose water is being used to mask an odour less palatable? Or less exotic? Has anyone else noticed the remarkable proliferation of highly scented ‘pr speak’ that accompanies regattas and sundry marine related events these days? Are they just trying to cover up a different sort of smell?
Media operations have changed substantially over recent years. Once upon a time newspapers and magazines sent staffers to events, and then published the stories they wrote. The reputation of the publication rested on the quality of the writing, and the reputation of the events rested on reports produced by largely independent writers.
Now, the difference between reporting, journalism and pr goes like this: reporting is telling it how it is, journalism is telling it how you think it is, and public relations is telling it how the client thinks it is (or at least, wants it to look). Today, events produce and distribute their own ‘news’, and all the major sailing events in the world have got their media image well sewn up.
Starting with the big players - Volvo Ocean Race, World Match Racing Tour etc - they all produce their own news roundups (read: press releases) and issue them to the waiting world – a media world driven by the insatiably hungry ‘social media’, in which the attention span of the consumer is shorter than a sneeze. Inevitably, that means that a substantially skewed account of any event is what makes it into the public domain.
As soon as an event writes its own press, objectivity is compromised. When did you last see a press release that said ‘our event was a bit of a flop this year, there was no breeze and the race management tanked’? Right, so never believe your own advertising.
There are lots of events all scrambling to get noticed, even within Asia. One local sailor described the Asian regatta circuit as 'same people, same boats, same conditions, different bar'. Take a look at the calendar: there’s a major event, and often more than one, taking place in practically every month of the year - and that’s before you take into consideration the weekend racing happening at your local yacht club.
Your event doesn’t stand a snowball in hell’s chance of being noticed unless it is the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the longest or the windiest (or whatever), and if you’re not ‘International’ don’t even bother to publish a Notice of Race. So the superlatives pile one on another, and the prose becomes ever more purple.
There have been, recently, a plethora of highly coloured claims of questionable accuracy designed to make any given event sound a great deal more important (or exotic/famous/breathtaking/exciting, or…) than it really is. It’s the result of a number of very much similar events trying to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd, pumped by the social networks, and ending up as the enthusiastic self-promotion of the ordinary masquerading as extra-ordinary.
Inevitably, the teetering pile of adjectives comes crashing down every now and again as hyper-inflation sets in.
Just this year, 2011, there was an event claiming that they were ‘the first regatta in Asia’ to garner sponsorship from a certain rum manufacturer. It was nonsense, and provable nonsense. When their error was pointed out to them, they said, 'maybe we could say ‘the first regatta in south east Asia…' Heavens, how thin do you want to slice the truth?
An enthusiastic sailor friend recently summed up the Asian regatta circuit as 'Same conditions, same boats, same people, different bar.' There are exceptions, but this piece is not about promoting or discrediting any particular event – just about pointing out a few things about reporting, and independence.
And accuracy. Oh dear, where do we start? There’s an event in China which once advertised itself as 'bigger than the America’s Cup' – based, presumably, on the fact the AC only involves two boats. Last year there was the press release (also out of China) that described an event as 'attended by all the most famous sailors in the world'. This turned out to be three people with a clutch of European titles between them - obviously much better sailors than I will ever be - but whose names were not familiar. And one name that I recognised because we occasionally drink in the same bar.
And then there was the event in Hong Kong that described itself, in print, as 'Asia’s biggest boat show'. When asked, the PR Manager was unable to tell us whether the claim referred to the number of exhibitors, the number of visitors, the number of boats in the show, the combined length of the boats in the water, or indeed any other quantifiable statistic.
So next time you are attracted by the alluring promise of the hottest competition, the toughest racecourse, the blowiest winds or the longest regatta bar in the world, just check and see who wrote the story. It could be the bar owner himself…
MtGAY hat, RHKYC China Sea Race 1990
MtGAY hat, RHKYC China Coast Cup 1995
MtGAY hat, RHKYC Corum Cup 1996
MtGAY hat, RHKYC China Coast Race Week 2006
MtGAY hat, RHKYC Regatta Ball 2007
This article is reproduced with the permission of the Editor of Yachtstyle magazine. www.yachtstyleasia.com