Case Study: How to Solve a PR Mess, Starring the NYC Marathon

marathon-canceled

A few weeks ago, I posted my story about the cancelation of the New York City marathon and the subsequent fallout, both for runners and for the brand as a whole. The Wall Street Journal had a nice follow-up last week about what challenges the New York Road Runners, who put on the marathon, will face as a result of the cancelation.

For my story, I spoke to Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder and managing partner of public relations agency Snapp Conner PR. We’ll examine transcript of her email, which details how big organizations should always have a plan B in place and speak openly and honestly to its constituents, and compare it to the reporting by the WSJ and what the NYRR is doing to clean up its mess.

According to the WSJ:

  • People familiar with the situation said the negotiations with Lloyd’s and the members of its syndicate have prompted the running club, known as the NYRR, to keep its public statements to a minimum about potential refunds for runners and other partners in the race.

This directly violates the advice of Snapp Conner:

As a general rule, communicating to their constituents quickly and honestly, even if they didn’t have all the answers, would have made a world of difference.

Post race, there is still much that could be done. They could post a blog or create a mechanism to answer as many questions as possible in a forum that all could access rather then having phones ring unanswered.

According to the WSJ:

  • A person familiar with the Lloyd’s deliberations said the company already has authorized a “large payment,” a sign that it has acknowledged liability, even though the running club and the city decided to cancel a race that could have been held. The person said Lloyd’s is still working with NYRR officials regarding the size of the payment, and a significant disagreement remains …

What would Snapp Conner say to this?

 The aftermath will surely be financially devastating and cause layoffs and lack of support … But the best thing they could do, from a PR standpoint, is to enact a re-start- speak openly and candidly about where they fell down and what they’ll do differently as a re-emerged organization to ensure they emerge stronger and never have to re-learn these lessons again.

Finally, from the WSJ:

  • The NYRR doesn’t have enough money to refund all the investments made in the race by runners, sponsors, broadcasters and the travel partners who arranged trips for foreign participants, said an official familiar with the organization’s finances.
  • Complicating matters, however, is that unlike most sporting events, the marathon has a clear no-refund policy, even if severe weather forces organizers to cancel the race.
  • After canceling the marathon, Ms. Wittenberg promised the event’s runners entry into next year’s race or the New York City half-marathon in March. But the running club can’t offer free entry until it knows how much money it will be able to recoup from Lloyd’s and its syndicate members.

Perhaps the most important bit of Snapp Conner’s advice applies to the three problems outlined above:

There is much the NYRR could have done better and differently regarding the cancelling of the race. From the moment the storm struck (and even before – an organization this substantial should always have at least a template PR plan in place) the organization should have realized there was at least some chance they’d be forced to cancel and thought through the plans.

Looking at Plan B’s such as an out and back course from the finish line? Paying to bring in their own support to allow all but a few police to stay on task in the lower burroughs? Postponing by a few weeks? All of this should have been considered….

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