Boston balances safety, celebratory Marathon messages

Boston Marathon organizers and local authorities have a tough task balancing security messages and maintaining the fun, triumphal spirit of the race. They are hitting their pace so far, say comms experts.

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the bombing that left three people dead and 264 injured at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Undeterred by the tragedy, the city is gearing up for its 118th annual marathon on Monday, with 9,000 more competitors than in previous years and an expected crowd of 1 million spectators along the 26.2-mile course.

Of course, public safety is always paramount for marathon organizers and authorities planning major events around the world. But it has even more weight for the Boston Marathon's organizers, agencies, competitors, and supporters following last year’s bombing. A bomb scare that occurred Tuesday night following a memorial service for last year’s victims underscored this sensitivity.

"We have developed an extensive communications plan for Marathon Monday, beginning with the installation of our own network to reduce traffic in case of emergency," said Boston Police Department spokesman Sgt. Michael McCarthy, in an emailed statement.

He explained that the department has installed additional mobile cellular towers to enhance service, while it plans to use mobile command posts and weapon-detection systems on marathon day.

The police department is placing more than 100 cameras along the Boston portion of the course. It is also planning to use its @bostonpolice Twitter account to distribute news information. In addition, it has set up a text-a-tip line for members of the public and an internal email address that will serve as a clearinghouse for all data that comes into the city’s information points.

The department’s staff will monitor social media and the text-a-tip program to ensure real-time responses to any information received, and it is actively encouraging the public to follow its Twitter account and blog, said McCarthy.

The Boston Athletic Association is promoting the security guidelines, including the implementation of a no bags policy for runners. A challenge is maintaining the spirit and family feel for which the event is known.

Chris Weiller, VP of media and PR at New York Road Runners, which organizes the New York Marathon, says the running community "understands the situation" and the heightened police presence at New York’s marathon did not affect the running experience.

"[The running community] gets it and appreciates the effort," he explains. "They are an amazing, resilient, and powerful group."

Following the Boston Marathon bombing last year, the New York Road Runners and the New York Police Department doubled their safety and security budget for the marathon to $1 million. Weiller says the organization works "hand-in-hand" with the police, putting contingency plans in place for every possible scenario it can ponder.

Communicating with the runners "early and often" across multiple channels, such as email and social media, allows his organization, which works with its counterparts in Boston and around the world, to make runners feel safe, Weiller notes.

"It is key there are no surprises on the day," he emphasizes. 

Praise for race organizers, Boston’s Finest
Boston-based communications professions unanimously say the Boston Police and Athletic Association have done a "great job" communicating their safety plan in the lead-up to the event.

"The security measures are appreciated, wanted, and warranted, given there was a bomb scare [this week]," explains Laura Tomasetti, CEO and founder of 360 PR. "It was disappointing to see that [the person who left the backpack] took advantage of the first responders in that way, but it was encouraging to see how quickly they responded to it. They are ready."

Given the magnitude and length of the race, Tomasetti says there is always a potential risk to public safety, as with any major public event. However, referring to race officials and first responders, she adds, "The majority of rational people understand what they need to do and can focus on the small percentage that might take advantage."

Cheryl Gale, managing partner of March Communications, says Boston Marathon officials have "certainly made it clear" that the safety of the runners and spectators and the spirit of the event itself "are not mutually exclusive."

"You can have both and officials have done an excellent job of communicating their dedication to making that happen at this year’s marathon," she says, noting that infographics issued by authorities outlining what people can and cannot carry in specific areas is a good example of this. 

Mike Lawrence, chief reputation officer and EVP at Cone Communications, agrees that city officials have been effective so far at maintaining this balance.

"They are going out of their way to make people feel comfortable and be more interpersonal, which is a sign of how sensitive about these issues they are," he says. "The marathon is a celebratory and inspiring event that touches regular people who do an extraordinary thing on that day with family and friends watching. It is clear the police don’t want to impinge on that. They have done it well so far."

Lawrence adds that the Boston Police Department has been "really smart" to engage the public in safety communications using social media, which carries the message that "we are here to take care of each other."

He said this strategy is the next step after the "see something, say something" that began in New York after 9/11.

George Regan, chairman and founder of Regan Communications Group, says that restoring the public’s confidence in the event could take up to five years, though he notes, "The police have done a good job in getting people to pay attention to their surroundings without over-alarming them."

"The message this week is about remembering what happened," he adds. "Monday is about moving ahead and creating new memories."

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