Running in Circles: The 2007 Chicago Marathon and Crisis Communications

The 2007 Chicago Marathon was one of the closest races in the event's history, with the men's winner earning victory by a mere five-hundredths of a second.

The 2007 Chicago Marathon was one of the closest races in the event's history, with the men's winner earning victory by a mere five-hundredths of a second.

Yet the legacy of the 2007 marathon will have nothing to do with the photo finish; instead, the race will forever ring synonymous with “cancellation,” “crisis,” and “death.” And the event's aftermath will be associated with the manner by which race officials tried to “spin” the tragedy – and their own mismanagement – of the race.

Quick recap: Three-and-a-half hours into the race, marathon officials canceled the event for the first time in its 30-year history. Scorching temperatures had caused more than 300 runners to seek medical attention. Tragically, a pre-existing heart condition led to one runner's death.

Beyond race-day complaints of an inadequate water supply, hospitalizations, and human tragedy, marathon officials now face an even greater heat: this time, from their poorly thought-out and executed post-race crisis communications.

The fact is, marathon spokespersons committed a multitude of communication faux-pas, with the most egregious ones the following:

Denial. Perhaps the grossest communication pitfall of all has been marathon director Carey Pinkowski's insistence that there was an adequate amount of fluids for runners. From participants to volunteers to spectators, the complaint is universal: the Chicago Marathon ran out of water. Pinkowski's denial has further alienated marathon officials from the disgruntled runners they should be attempting to appease.

Blame. Pinkowski has used his soapbox to blame the ailing runners for the marathon mishaps instead of accepting responsibility, castigating runners for using the water to douse themselves rather than drink it. He absurdly defends, “That's something that, I'll be honest with you, we didn't anticipate.” Kicking a man when he is down – or 36,000 runners, for that matter – is hardly an effective communications strategy. Pinkowski has since watched idly from the sidelines as host cities of other marathons advertise discounted or waived entrance fees for Chicago participants – a message of sympathy that Chicago's race officials should have been the first to communicate.

Self-Praise. While the media has unanimously branded the 2007 event “calamitous,” race officials have attempted to spin it into an absolute success. Pinkowski consistently offered self-congratulatory, narrow statements that clearly flew in the face of the facts, such as: “Is there anything we could have done better? No. … I'm very proud of the way things went.” His declaration leaves no room for messages of future improvement or lessons learned – some of the most elemental components of successful crisis communications.

Opaqueness. While marathoners have demanded clear answers, Pinkowski has adopted a platform of vagueness. In a mass e-mail written to runners five days after the event, Pinkowski botched a golden opportunity to “come clean” with transparent messaging. Pinkowski mustered only an opaque reference to a water supply investigation, or as he vaguely put it, “reviewing the details.”

This reactive, defensive messaging has spawned a public relations nightmare with ramifications far beyond the Chicago Marathon; there is already widespread speculation that this marathon madness threatens Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid.

Without question, marathon officials forgot – or worse yet, ignored – best practices in proactive crisis communications, which include most or all of the following:

• Communicate early and often
• Accept accountability
• Establish open and honest partnerships with the public
• Explain what went wrong and initiate corrective actions voluntarily
• Express determination to make future changes

Marathon officials also forgot that many of the people they were trying to spin either were at the race, or ran in it themselves.

And they knew better.

Michael Geczi is Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications of Ashton Partners, Chicago.

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