Right Call at Wrong Time

In public relations, timing is everything. The right decision may be met with hostile reactions if the timing is off. Think about how the New York Road Runners reacted to Superstorm Sandy.

The storm made landfall on Oct. 28, directly hitting the most populated region of the country. The damage was immense and clean-up efforts started almost immediately. Mary Wittenberg, CEO of NYRR, had a decision to make. To run or not to run.

The New York Marathon was to be run on Nov. 4, a week after the storm hit. About 50,000 runners and millions of spectators were supposed to watch the 26.2 mile race through New York’s five boroughs. An event this large requires a massive amount of resources including supplies for the racers and an increased police presence. There was no way New York City could provide these resources and clean up after a natural disaster at the same time, right? Surely, the marathon needed to be cancelled.

“It’s a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you know, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind,”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on Tuesday, Oct. 30 the race would continue. It was a bold move with good intentions. This could be great way to show that New York City could bounce back from anything. People from all over the world would be coming to New York for the race and Mayor Bloomberg wanted to show resiliency of the city.

Sports has a funny way of bringing Americans together. In fact, after the terrorist attacks in 2001, America came back together on a national stage at a baseball game. President George W. Bush threw out a perfect first pitch at Yankee Stadium and for a few hours we could forget the past.

I’m not sure if this is what Mayor Bloomberg and Wittenberg were thinking about when they decided to announce the race will go on, but it was clear they were not prepared for how much damage there was.

The days following the announcement were filled with criticism. How could the race go on when thousands of people didn’t have power and were sleeping in the cold every night as the death toll continued to rise? It was a valid argument and many people thought NYRR was the enemy.

According to an article in The New York Times, the NYRR Facebook page was full of negative post, some even calling for Wittenberg’s resignation. Then, the right decision was made (just a little too late).

The City of New York and New York Road Runners announce that the 2012 ING NYC Marathon has been canceled. While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of disagreement and division. We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention from all the critically important work that is being done to help New York City recover from the storm. New York Road Runners will have additional information in the days ahead and we thank you for your dedication to the spirit of this race. We encourage runners who have already arrived in New York City to help with volunteer relief efforts.
-New York Road Runners Facebook post, November 2

On Friday, two days before the race was scheduled to start, the New York Marathon was cancelled. Now, thousands of would-be runners from across the globe spent thousands of dollars to travel to New York City for the cancelled race. Some ran the race anyway, some volunteered to help those in need and the resources that were supposed to be for the runners were donated to the residents who still didn’t have power. Many people made the best out of a bad situation, but they were still angry.

NYRR had some foresight and did have insurance to cover the millions of dollars lost because of the cancellation, however they have bigger issues ahead of them. What about all the runners who paid for the race and were not allowed to run? How will next year’s race look?

This is an example of how the right decision was made at the wrong time caused massive confusion. It is easy to see the right decision now, but go back to that week. Do you see why Mayor Bloomberg thought it may have been a good idea to run the race? Or was it doomed from the beginning? Who should make the call, NYRR or the Mayor?

These are all interesting questions, but a lesson can be learned from this case. Make a decision that is best for your organization and stay with it. When plans change on short notice, there are no winners.

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