Outrunning A Crisis

Observations November 7, 2012 10:28 am

I’m an “almost marathoner”; I was supposed to run my first marathon – the 2012 ING New York City Marathon – on Sunday, November 4th. But then Sandy happened, and the race was canceled.

This post is not about my personal journey to the marathon.

This post is also not about the decision to cancel the marathon.

This post is about how that decision was communicated.

The decision to cancel the marathon was announced at approximately 5:30 PM on Friday, November 2nd. But it took NYRR – the marathon’s organizer – until 11:51 AM on Saturday to officially confirm the decision via email to the nearly 47,000 runners ready to run on Sunday.

I doubt that any runner thought the marathon wasn’t really canceled until they got the email, and I doubt that any runner hadn’t heard the news by the time NYRR sent the email. It was hard not to miss the news – TwitterFacebook,national and local news…everyone but NYRR had an “official” stance on the situation.

But that’s not the point.

The Runners Should Have Heard The News First.

Before Mayor Bloomberg, before The New York Times, before Twitter got its hands on the news, the runners should have been notified of the decision. The runners were the ones who signed up to run the race, the ones that paid money to run, had flown in from around the world, and had spent the time training.

They were the clients.

And clients are who should matter first and foremost to brands – especially in times of crisis.

To wait more than 18 hours to officially communicate with the runners – the clients – was unacceptable. While telling runners “first” may not have been technically possible in a world with social media and a 24/7 news cycle, telling them at the same time via an official communication (email is the choice of NYRR) is more than possible.

Social Media has sped up news cycles dramatically, and brands need to adjust their PR and Communications strategies accordingly.

Take, for example, another brand dealing with a crisis at the same time:

Con Edison.

The two brands’ approach to dealing with a crisis couldn’t have been any more different.

While NYRR chose not to communicate at all with runners, Con Edison did nothingbut communicate – preemptive phone calls to alert customers to their power status and an always “on” Twitter account, constantly communicating with less-than-thrilled clients.

The official NYRR and official INGNYCMaraton Twitter accounts, however, are bare.

The last time either account tweeted was on Nov. 1, even though @requests to both accounts are rampant – neither account has responded publicly to a single one.

Con Edison, on the other hand, can’t stop tweeting power status updates and responding to individual requests.

Communication to clients is crucial to fostering and retaining a strong brand relationship. And direct communications should always come from a brand – no matter how many other news outlets are reporting the information. Bad news is a tough pill to swallow, but silence is even more devastating for a brand – especially when others are reporting on the bad news.

Silence indicates callousness, a lack of preparation, and most importantly, aloofness and a disconnect between a brand and their clients.

In the case of bad news like a product failure or recall – or, in the case of a race, its cancellation – the only thing a brand has left with their clients is their relationship. To not speak with clients – to not even attempt to retain that relationship – is damning.

Brands need to have a strong crisis communication plan in place – long before any crisis has occurred. The plan should lead with how the brand will communicate with clients – the most important constituency – first and foremost.

And putting clients first shouldn’t just be in a crisis communication plan – it should be a leading operating principle.

As for what will happen to the runners who were supposed to run the marathon?

I wouldn’t know; nearly 6 full days after the decision to cancel the ING NYC Marathon was made, there hasn’t been a single email, phone call, tweet, posting on the website, or single thread of communication from NYRR to indicate how 2012 runners will or won’t be accommodated in the 2013 race.

Silence is damning. Brands shouldn’t wait to have the ‘right’ answer before communicating with their clients, but they do need to communicate to show they are listening and value their relationship.

*Originally appeared on Advertising Week.

*Header photo credit: Jason Decrow/AP

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