New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to his senses and canceled the NYC marathon. But he didn't sound very happy about it. He can take credit for finally doing the right thing even if he had little choice. The visual juxtaposition of runners waiting for the race to start on Staten Island in warming tents with bagels and water, contrasted with nearby homeless Staten Island hurricane victims, would have been indefensible.
In their joint statement Friday, Mayor Bloomberg and New York City Road Runners Director Mary Wittenberg blamed the growing controversy about holding the race as their reason for canceling it. The controversy, they argued, distracted from the recovery. Ms. Wittenberg, in a letter to race participants, took it one step further — blaming exaggerated media coverage for creating antagonism to the event and its participants. She continued to contend that the marathon would not have diverted resources away from the recovery.
As a public relations consultant and a runner who was scheduled to toe the starting line run on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, here's my advice to the mayor and Ms. Wittenberg: Have and show a heart. What they owed the city and runners was a genuine, sincere apology. What they offered was a gun-to-the-head, defensive explanation.
Perhaps it's the fear of litigation, or just hubris, that causes some of our leaders to shy away from public apologies. Nevertheless, a cardinal rule of crisis communications is that your first public statement should show you recognize the depth of the problem, understand who has been harmed or affected, and demonstrate empathy for them. You don't have to feel their pain, like Bill Clinton — but you should acknowledge it.
Instead, Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Wittenberg sounded like resentful kids. It would have been better if they had explained why they had thought running the race would be good for the city. When the original decision to go forward with the marathon was announced, Ms. Wittenberg appeared on NBC's "Today Show" and said the marathon symbolized the human spirit's ability to persevere. Instead of pointing fingers, Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Wittenberg, in later canceling the event, could have repeated this sentiment and added that the same spirit would endure in 2013 with a repaired and reinvigorated New York.
Another tenet of crisis communications is to listen to those who have been affected by the crisis. Runners, many who had trained for months including the hottest days of the summer, were pulling out of the marathon because for them running it wasn't the right thing to do. As one runner remarked to a reporter, "I just couldn't imagine running up Fourth Avenue and having someone hand me water when there's such a desperate need for water."
Many of the runners who arrived in New York before the cancellation had the right priorities. On Sunday morning, they took the ferry to Staten Island and worked as volunteers aiding relief efforts. Others left town early so those made homeless by the storm could stay in their hotel rooms.
The New York Road Runners still have my $250 entry fee and the entry fees of the 47,000 other runners who would have traversed the course. If they want to make the right statement, they could offer to donate it to the American Red Cross or the "Race to Recover" marathon fund.
Harry Bosk, is principal of the Baltimore-based public relations firm The Write Image. His email is email@example.com. He has run eight marathons and 13 half marathons.