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Direct & Integrated Marketing Roundtable

Monday, November 5, 2012

Learn from the NYC Marathon's PR Disaster--Develop your Social Media Strategy before its too late!


We all know at some level that social media has had a trans formative influence in our world.  What we may not have experienced, is the power of that influence against one of our own interests.

We have marveled at the power of social media to highlight and move forward trivial cultural issues, such as a funny video or picture, and on a more serious note, social media has been credited with triggering the Arab Spring and consequently toppling governments.

Other organizations can learn a lesson from what has played out this week for the City of New York, The New York City Marathon and it's sponsor, the New York Road Runner's organization.  That lesson is: Build your social media strategy before you need it!



The power of social media was unleashed against the City of New York, the New York Road Runners organization, and would be marathoners.  Following the epic storm (Hurricane Sandy) that hit New York on Monday, October 29, the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg together with the NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg announced boldly on Wednesday, October 31 that the premiere running event for New York, the New York City Marathon, would continue as planned; only to announce Friday evening November 2, that the event would ultimately be cancelled.

While the initial decision (moving ahead) was surprising, both Bloomberg and Wittenberg defended the decision for myriad reasons.  Among the reasons to move forward were that the Race would focus attention on the city, and thus relief efforts would result.  More directly, Wittenberg would donate $1 million for relief and recovery efforts.

As the week wore on however, the mainstream media and social media weighed in about the timing of the NYC Marathon relative to the hurricane and the concern that resources (police, fire fighters, water  and generators) would be diverted from those in need and to the running event.  Particular mention was made of the bridge closures at a time when some of the tunnels were still flooded, making navigation on and off Manhattan more difficult.  A congressman from Staten Island, Michael Grimm appeared on the evening news on Thursday, November 1 making an impassioned plea to call off the Marathon as Staten Island was making grim discoveries in the wake of the hurricane.  Meanwhile airports had reopened, and international runners were arriving in New York, some evidently vying with New Yorkers made homeless by the hurricane for hotel rooms.  All of these stories (and more) played out in mainstream media and were amplified in Social Media.  Finally, 36 hours before the marathon was to kick off, an announcement of cancellation of the event came from the Mayor's office, and the NYRR was silent, for at least three quarters of an hour.

Certain threads of the story took on a life of their own in social media. A few of the threads which had no basis in truth but were nonetheless played out in social media were:

  • Rumor:  The NYRR has generators for runners which have been diverted from people who actually have no power and need them.  Truth:  The NYRR has a great deal of their own equipment and know exactly what is required to put on a marathon having hosted the premiere U.S. marathon annually for the last 40 years.
  • Rumor:  The runners will take water away from people who have no water.  Truth:  This notion is as ridiculous as the first one for the same reason.  You don't stage a marathon annually for 40 years and not have a concept about the requirements of water for the runners.
  • Rumor:  The runners could just as easily run circles around Central Park.  Truth:  This was not a viable solution due to the sheer number of runners involved.  In the early years of the marathon when competitors numbered in the hundreds this was done, but how could the park accommodate 44 thousand runners?
  • Rumor:  The race can be postponed for a week.  Truth:  Well this sounds like a good idea, but in a city like New York where the staging of the marathon requires street closures, and associated logistics, it is not a given that all conditions will be "right" for just moving it by a week.  This isn't a school picnic after all, thousands of volunteers, and support people are involved.  There is no guarantee that all of the venues would be available a week in advance, and not in conflict with some other event.
Some of the comments that were made in Social Media were not only not intended to be helpful at all but just be rude and directed at runners:
  • The runners want only to complete an item on their bucket list.
  • Anyone who watches or participates needs their head examined.
  • No human being should run that far anyway.
  • Runners are out to impress people in their fancy running clothes.
In the compressed time period between the announcement that the Race was on as of Wednesday morning, until the time that it was announced as cancelled on Friday evening, one fact was painfully obvious to me.  The voice of the runners was missing, I would have thought that the NYRR would have the wherewithal to launch an effort to be the voice of the runners.  I am sure that they have never been in such a role before, but it was rather eye opening that their viewpoint was completely absent in the dialogue.  

In the final analysis, it is certain that even if the NYRR had engaged with the critics in social media dialogue the result would have been the same -- the event would have been cancelled. But had the NYRR been a more active participant in social media, perhaps the NYRR could have maintained some level of good will among their core constituency, the runners.  Or alternatively, had the NYRR been a skilled user of social media, perhaps they would have made an announcement to cancel the race at the outset.  For example, the graph below created using Lithium (a social monitoring tool) clearly shows an explosion in conversation involving the words "NYC Marathon" and "cancel" in the social space (twitter, Facebook, blogs, news feeds, etc.)   In addition, we note that the sentiment regarding these conversations is more heavily skewed negative (red) versus positive (green).  



From the NYRR Facebook page we can see only 16 posts were made between October 25th and November 2nd.  However the 16 posts by the NYRR generated nearly 4,000 comments from other Facebook users.
  • October 25--First mention of a large storm that is being monitored.  A second post about "Mighty Milers" is also posted on this date.  Total of two posts.
  • October 27--Poland Spring Kickoff Race two posts.  One cautions about the storm and directs attention to social media and a special hotline phone number.
  • October 28--Monitoring Sandy one post.
  • October 29--"Still working through hurricane Sandy" one post.  This post seems to indicate that an assessment of some kind is going on but the main emphasis in the post is to communicate the Half Marathon registration in 2013.
  • October 30--"Keeping all Options Open" two posts.
  • October 31-- Single post requests runners to stay out of Central Park as clean up proceeds. Mayor's announcement regarding going forward was made on October 31, but was not posted to Facebook immediately.
  • November 1--"Race goes forward"  references announcement from the Mayor; Two posts "Race is dedicated the victims of the hurricane" soliciting donations.  Total of three posts for the day.
  • November 2--NYRR changed cover photo to "Race to Recover" then at 6:28 pm posts the news that the race is canceled. Two more posts appeared later in the evening.  Total three posts for the day.

What could NYRR have done differently to better manage the dialogue?  

More monitoring of the social media, and in a proactive manner.  It seems that they were either not monitoring the social media or if they were they were not responding in a manner to diffuse the criticisms and misconceptions.  Is it possible they did not fathom that the decision would be controversial?  They could have tested the public sentiment by asking questions on their Facebook page as an attempt to gauge public sentiment.

Regarding the timeliness of the social media communication, often announcements were made in other media first, leaving the social channel as a place where core constituents, learned the news second hand after it was tweeted out or communicated by others.  

Provide a platform for the runners to communicate to each other. The NYRR was not a heavy user of social media before this Marathon, but perhaps that will change after this experience.  Had the NYRR promoted a special hashtag to marathon entrants, then perhaps as the social media lit up against the Marathon, the runners could have found their own collective voice.  It is unfair to characterize all runners as selfish, insensitive, etc. and having a voice and feeling part of a community against all of the critics would have helped to minimize the damage to the relationship NYRR has with their constituency of runners.

Had the runners been provided a platform for communication they may have come together and made the suggestion to cancel the event to the NYRR, thus making the runners part of the process instead of hapless pawns in the decision.

NYRR needs to provide more information about their efforts to help the community forward going and cleanup and recovery efforts right now.  As noted based on their Facebook page there was granted not a lot of time to socialize the vision for helping with the recovery efforts, however, the organization runs races (shorter in distance) all throughout the year, and the NYRR is involved in supporting many charities in the city.  I would venture to say that most critics of the Marathon do not know that the NYRR raises money for prostrate cancer screenings, lung cancer research, victims of domestic violence, and food programs for people with AIDS to name a but a few of the worthwhile causes.  In addition the NYRR is an organization dedicated to fitness promoting running to children and having mentoring programs where adult runners teach children and teens running techniques.

Had NYRR's good works been better promoted throughout the year, it would have been much more difficult to cast them in some kind of a villian's role.  Then the most they would seem guilty of would be being overly optimistic on how quickly the city would be ready to have the race.

NYRR needs a comprehensive social media strategy.  For a not for profit organization a comprehensive social media strategy consists of:
  • A clear definition of how the social media strategy will support the NYRR brand and mission.
  • An editorial calendar.
  • Ensure that the social media strategy integrates fully with all of the other marketing strategies, this means that the NYRR twitter handle and Facebook page is mentioned on all promotions of races, on the web pages, and in the signage, etc used at races throughout the year.
  • Read and measure key metrics and synthesize them throughout the organization.  Social media metrics should be aligned with the measurement of new members to NYRR, donations, and mentions in social and other media all of the NYRR's key metrics should be easy to follow in a single dashboard.
  • Track results routinely and refine strategies based on what works well in terms of engagement.  Feed back results throughout the organization.
  • When all of the important groundwork has been laid to manage and read social media metrics and other important organizational Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), then NYRR should begin to understand and reach out to key influencers to develop a strategy to further their brand message via this important group.
Don't forget, success in social media requires:
  • Defining the strategic purpose of the medium.  For a not for profit, are you using the medium to acquire new members or communicate with current members?  Or are you trying to communicate your mission to potential donors?
  • Defining the nature of your relationship to all of your constituents.  Are you a cheerleader, advisor, curator, mentor, friend, etc?
  • Establishing the narrative, what is the message you want to convey to your followers?  Can you structure your message to work with other channels?
  • Paying attention to this medium, monitoring the dialogue and commenting appropriately.
  • Establishing in advance KPIs that will identify the effectiveness of the strategy.  (If you're not measuring it you're not managing it!)
In the spirit of full disclosure I am a member of the NYRR organization but have never run a marathon.  I have great admiration for those who have the discipline and strength to train for and  run a marathon.  My husband Perry is an avid runner, and I am a sometime runner participating in shorter races throughout the year.  It is because of my association with NYRR that I know what a terrific organization they are, and it is my hope that they adopt a social media strategy so that they can control the conversation about their organization.

What are your thoughts about the social media strategy (or lack thereof) surrounding the NYC Marathon?  I would like to hear from you.

Rhonda Knehans Drake


      

1 comment:

  1. Social media needed ASAP for the people think if the marathon happened going to hurt the feeling of those who suffered from the hurricane! It makes it seem like they don’t know that over 34 million raised from the Marathon being used for relief efforts and help nonprofit organization!

    ReplyDelete