Guest Column: On Your Mark, Get Set… Stop!

nyc marathon 150x150 Guest Column: On Your Mark, Get Set... Stop!

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for the decision to cancel the New York City Marathon.

Yes, let’s go ahead with the marathon! Wait a minute – let’s not. Late on Friday, Mayor Bloomberg reversed his previous position to go ahead with Sunday’s NYC marathon, an event involving thousands of runners, after coming under tremendous pressure. By Friday, Sunday’s Marathon had been cancelled.

Why the turnaround? In the days following Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on the New York area, it was remarkable to hear the rhetoric from the Mayor – namely, that going on with the race would be a show of strength by New Yorkers. Could Mayor Bloomberg have been more misguided in thinking that holding the event anyway, despite a city torn in half by those who had power and those who did not, would be good for New York morale? What he completely missed was a more careful look at the details. The world could see what apparently only he and the event’s sponsors could not:  This was not September 11.

As the severity of Sandy’s impact grew more apparent, focus sharpened on the redeployment of services to support the race. The New York City Marathon is not a simple run in the park. It includes the use of multiple generators, the very same generators that could now power darkened, cold neighborhoods. Police and Fire Department professionals could also be reassigned from controlling traffic to recovery work. This was one case where the show must NOT go on.

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for the final decision to cancel the New York City Marathon.

The PR Takeaway: One size does not fit all. Mayor Bloomberg’s original decision to create a” life should go on” platform (as happened with September 11) was the wrong comparison to make. He might have been better guided by the mistake of Condoleezza Rice’s much-maligned visit to Manhattan immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when she caught a Broadway show and bought a pair of Ferragamos. Then as now, the message was not carry on as normal but rather, stop what you are doing and get help fast to where it is most needed. And that doesn’t include running a marathon.

A Serious Storm, A Simple (and Effective) Message

OB VD264 obamaf G 20121028145952 150x150 A Serious Storm, A Simple (and Effective) Message

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for a President’s speech that reassured and activated.

Hurricane Sandy has managed to do the unthinkable in terms of media coverage: moved the last ten days of electioneering off the front page and turned national attention toward disaster recovery. President Obama joined the conversation on Monday morning, and with a coupe of clearly honed messages at a hastily-convened press conference, he made the transition from electioneering President to President in Charge.

Obama’s short speech is worth watching for anyone wanting to know how to craft a simple message. What started off with a slightly wordy and lengthy introduction soon became clear. Yes, preparations were in place and the East Coast was as ready as it could be, but the main takeaway? “Listen to what officials are saying – this is a serious storm.”

Obama’s speech was designed to reassure, and to manage expectations. He flagged the  inevitable issues that will arise post-storm, including long-running power outages and transportation delays. But the main lesson from the speech is that reassuring the public that everything’s under control is not enough; a call to action is needed and grabs attention. Getting the public directly involved takes the conversation to a higher level of engagement.

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for a President’s speech that reassured and activated.

The PR Takeaway: To get the public’s attention, give the public something to do. President Obama’s speech included a roll call of what was intended to reassure a nervous public. What made the difference was clear instruction. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a similar speech following September 11, when he asked New Yorkers to go back to their lives, the streets, and shopping. A call to action from someone in authority got attention then, as it does now.