But while skipper Chris Nicholson and shore manager Neil Cox strove to return the crew safely home and restore their boat to the Race, another team was working just as hard behind the scenes to ensure that eventual success. That story is rarely, if ever, featured in the media.
Here, Team Vestas Wind CEO and Vice President, Global Marketing of Vestas, Mirella Amalia Vitale, gives us the inside track of how the incident tested her and her team to the limit, how they rose to their many challenges and the business lessons they learned along the way.
Vestas entered the Race late but were warned to ‘expect the unexpected’. Nevertheless, how much of a shock was this to you and your team?
Mirella: It was obviously a complete shock. I’d been through the crisis communication training with the Volvo Ocean Race team in Alicante and I remember being quite shocked by some of the scenes I’d seen of the incidents out at sea during the race in the past. Never for a moment did I think something like this would happen to Team Vestas Wind. I remember having that discussion with Chris (Nicholson) and saying ‘let’s make a very thorough crisis communication plan and let’s pray and hope that it will never be necessary to use it’. We were all confident that it would not occur because we would, of course, do everything possible to keep the crew safe.
Could you set the scene for us of how you received the news of the crash on November 29, 2014?
Mirella: It was a Saturday afternoon and I had been shopping and was just getting home with my husband. I was in a very good mood until I received the call between 5 and 6pm local time. It was Coxy’s (shore manager Neil Cox) voice on the other side. He said ‘Mirella, brace yourself!’ As soon as he said that, I knew that something had happened but I had no idea it would be quite as dramatic as it actually was. I expected some kind of damage or breakdown on the boat, but never in a million years at that point did I think that we had crashed into a reef.
What were your immediate concerns?
Mirella: Obviously, the safety of the team – first and foremost. We were in Skype calls with Race Control, and were managing to talk to Chris through the iSatPhone2 and understanding if they were safe and what the safety procedure would be. So at that moment in time, and for the hours that followed, the only concern was getting the crew safe and informing the families what had happened, because you could see from the Tracker that something wasn’t right and news through social media was moving very fast.
Coxy and I had a very good, quick plan to inform the families. We managed to get hold of almost everybody. Unfortunately, we had to send some emails to those that we couldn’t get hold of – because by then we were getting into Saturday evening and some of the people were in Auckland –. but overall the communication went out very quickly. We told everybody that we were in dialogue with the crew and were able to keep them updated every hour. Once that was done, our attention turned to the Vestas management team, our board of directors, because it could cause a huge impact on Vestas, both our brand and our Race programme. Of course, their first concern was the safety of the crew but then secondary to that, we did think about ‘so what do we now’?
The roles of shore manager Neil Cox, skipper Chris Nicholson and the crew have been well chronicled - but how did you and your team set yourselves up to deal with the incident behind the scenes?
Mirella: That weekend we had a little war-room set up in my apartment in Copenhagen so the team working on the Volvo Ocean Race project were all there sitting with me, connected to the boat and Race Control. We had TJ (Thomas John McMaw, Digital and Communications Manager, Team Vestas Wind) from Madrid and we were on the Vestas live communicating system for the next 36 hours. We were trying to plan how we should communicate this internally but also externally, to our customers and the media. The Volvo Ocean Race was, for us, a customer-engagement programme. We made quite a large announcement about entering the race and in Leg 2 of the race, having the boat and the team in such a critical incident was obviously something we had to communicate and find the right way of doing so. It was a difficult situation to manage and make sure the right communication went out to all the stakeholders. And also we had a very personal communication with them – we didn’t want it all simply going out through a press release.
What was the reaction of the stakeholders?
Mirella: Again, everybody’s first thoughts were for the safety of the crew. A lot of curiosity about how we would handle the next steps, how we would manage the crisis, get out of it or around it. At that point, everybody just expected the programme to end there on that reef. It was like ‘okay, you tried, it didn’t go well, this is what happened and that was it’. I think everybody thought that this was the end of the Team Vestas Wind story in the Volvo Ocean Race. At that time, even our Commercial Team believed it was probably the end of our race.
You then headed for Mauritius the following week where the team was to be based initially. Tell us about that experience.
Mirella: It was a very difficult place to operate from. Connectivity was really bad, the team had to take a 24-hour boat ride from the little island to the main island of Mauritius, and then I had to fly out there. So between people on planes and people on boats and the connectivity in Mauritius, we were not connected for quite a few hours. And then we had videos and documentation that we wanted to upload and get out and it was almost impossible to operate from Mauritius. We wanted to avoid the idea that we were staying out of media attention and ducking low because that wasn’t at all our intention. We were simply trying to understand what had happened before going out to the media, avoid communicating anything in too much of a rush.
Were you surprised at the global media attention the incident generated?
Mirella: We had never done a sponsorship like this before. We’re not really sports marketing people, so the passion and the reach that this incident stirred in so many people were very surprising. Both negative and positive – it wasn’t all positive to be sure, and having joined the race so late, there was also the risk of us being considered quite reckless - which simply wasn’t the case because we had put together one of the most experienced teams if you look at some of our sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race. . It gave us a lot of attention and a lot to work on, and we tried to answer absolutely everybody that contacted us.
How would you describe your strategy at this point?
Mirella: It was to be as open as possible. We didn’t want to hide anything and we wanted to keep our fans updated and involved. We knew that we had taken all the necessary precautions to put together a competitive team that knew what it was doing, so there was no reason to shy away. We would rather be transparent so people had an informed opinion of what had happened rather than jumping to their own conclusions, bearing in mind that there were some bureaucratic issues, with insurance and so forth, to deal with.
When did you realize you could salvage your boat – and campaign – and formulate a strategy to change this potential disaster into the PR victory it eventually turned out to be?
Mirella: The desire to repair the boat and get back in the race was almost immediate. Nobody wanted to accept the fact that the last image of Team Vestas Wind was going to be one of our boat grounded on the Cargados Carajos Shoals.
We finally realized there was a possibility of returning when the boat was delivered to Malaysia and some of the Persico team flew over there to do some controls. They were not able to commit at that stage that they could repair it in time but at least they could accept the challenge. From the Vestas side, we were willing to take the challenge on without ever knowing for certain that we would make it, but we had to do our homework to make sure we weren’t just reacting on emotions without any reason. Once we had the numbers in place, then we were confident we would make it work.
Does this reflect what Vestas are all about as company as well?
Mirella: Definitely. Resilience and overcoming large obstacles and finding a solution, simplicity in our decision-making, fast decision-making are all what make Vestas what we are. The story of Team Vestas Wind reflects the story of Vestas.
How much a personal toll did the episode take on you and your team?
Mirella: It was incredibly tough. I flew out to Mauritius on the day that I was supposed to fly home to Italy for my son’s 17th birthday.. It also took quite a big toll on my team here in Copenhagen because I continued to have my day job heading regular marketing programmes and initiatives and my team were left without me for quite some time while I was dealing with this crisis. Luckily, they stood up to the job and did very well without me.
Also for my team, it was very emotional. Everybody felt that we had failed somehow in the project and the programme, we all felt a bit responsible. We felt that just as things were setting off for us well in the programme and were learning about the sailing world, it suddenly all came to an abrupt end. It was really difficult also to keep the motivation of the team alive. That was a particularly strong issue.
What, if any, corporate PR lessons were learned by you and your team which you can transfer to normal business dealings at Vestas Wind Systems, the company?
Mirella: It did – at least with the speed of decision-making. It really shows that when necessary you can make a decision without having to spend three or four rounds of iterations and meetings. You are required to get the information out very fast so we needed to organize the whole collaboration and willingness to share information and agree on an approach much quicker. It definitely taught us that.
When you’ve been through something like that, it goes beyond your work. We were working incredible hours. TJ and I were communicating at all hours of the morning - at one stage he joked that he didn’t know whether to grab a coffee or a gin! So it creates a very strong bond with the team and definitely shows you that you get very attached to your team beyond a professional goal when something like this happens.
Looking back a year on, how would you sum up the whole experience?
Mirella: Like in everything when you have such a dramatic incident then you only remember the good sides. I think we all focus on Lisbon and the comeback and the positive PR that we got out of that story. I don’t really think about the accident itself any more but more what happened afterwards and also the consequent relationship with the crew and the team which was also much stronger than it was at the beginning. I don’t really look back now on the incident itself but more on the comeback – and the achievement.
And this year, you’ll be able to attend your son’s 18th birthday?
Mirella: Yes, that’s the plan! I’m keeping my fingers crossed nothing will stop me this time…