One of the most evident communications failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy involved the ING New York City Marathon. Unquestionably the success of the Marathon paled in comparison to the misery heaped on New York (and New Jersey and Connecticut) residents who should of course have received and should continue to receive immediate and effective relief.
However, I cannot understand why the Marathon could not have been transformed into a major vehicle for focusing attention on and creating relief efforts for the residents of Staten Island, and The Rockaways, the areas ofNew Yorkthe most severely damaged. I believe that the event could have been salvaged and made into something extraordinarily constructive instead of seemingly distractive and frivolous.
During the week of the storm Mayor Bloomberg kept announcing that theMarathonwould go on. He justified the decision by saying it would be good for New Yorkers. It would bring the City together and lift everyone’s spirits. He also stated that no resources would be diverted from the relief effort. This comment, although true, was weak in light of the dozens of generators seen being transported toCentral Park for the traditional pasta dinner, and the numerous port-a-potties being installed near the starting line. Granted these resources were private but it all seemed so selfish. This was crisis management and crisis communication at its worst.
What might have happened if the following had occurred? Mayor Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of the New York Road Runners (NYRR) jointly announced that theMarathonwas being renamed the Sandy Relief Marathon. The prize money was being donated immediately to the relief effort. The pasta dinner was cancelled and all generators and other private resources were being transferred to stricken areas. All port-a-potties were available immediately to the public. A telethon was being established for call-in donations during the race. All runners were being encouraged to donate their time in the coming days to support efforts. And so on.
The perception and the reality of theMarathonwould have been transformed into a humanitarian effort. That’s the way it should have been, instead of being billed as a cheer-leading, feel-good effort. Good crisis management in the Mayor’s Office and the NYRR was lacking. They had the time to make it happen but not the imagination or creativity. The resulting cancellation on the Friday before the event was a fiasco. An embarrassment for both the Mayor and the NYRR. The financial loss to the City is in the untold millions. The damage to the reputation to the event and the Road Runners organization remains to be seen. Certainly the thousands who travelled from abroad to participate now have a bitter taste in their mouths. The most common reaction was – We understand cancelling the event but why wait until Friday. If you had cancelled earlier in the week we could have saved the trip and our airfare.
We can only hope that nothing befalls the tri-state area again likeSandy, but if it does more intelligent and creative minds should grapple with a situation like theMarathonand utilize the notoriety of such an event to good and productive use. Obviously it is easier in hindsight to come up with ideas, but doing what’s right, sacrificing certain elements of an event and willingly taking two steps back in order to take one step forward would have burnished the image of the Marathon instead of tarnishing it. Trying to salvage an event in its entirety was and is perceived as putting yourself first. Placing the needs of those devastated bySandyfirst, and sacrificing some of theMarathon’s bells and whistles might have just garnered a lot more respect and kept a version of the race intact. Now NYRR has to renegotiate with product sponsors, ESPN and local affiliate WABC, and the participants themselves. It difficult to envision it coming out a true winner.