SBJ/April 8-14, 2013/In Depth

NYRR's Wittenberg discusses lessons learned

Much like the communities in Staten Island and Queens, the New York Road Runners is still cleaning up the mess left by Hurricane Sandy, five months after the monster storm washed into New York City. The organization and its CEO, Mary Wittenberg, became a lightning rod for public angst after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the race would continue one week after the storm hit. When Bloomberg and the NYRR reversed course and canceled the event two days before race day, it was the runners’ turn to voice their anger. Contributor Fred Dreier caught up with Wittenberg to discuss the NYRR’s business practices in the wake of the storm.

Take me through the race week. What were the options that were discussed?
WITTENBERG: Clearly we wish we’d known about the arc of a mega storm. It’s one that had never been experienced. Things looked very different on Thursday and Friday than they did on Monday and Tuesday. We wish we’d known all that. The idea of postponement to curtailment to different modifications of the course, it was all considered. Postponement with major marathons is something that many have concluded can never be done, and it still appears to be pretty impossible.

How did you discuss this with sponsors during race week?

WITTENBERG: There was close collaboration, and the amount of support was unbelievable. I look back to Wednesday of race week, when we were working with the mayor’s office and the whole idea of the marathon moved to: How do we uplift New York City and the affected areas? NYRR was committing $1 million. We only went to two partners, ING and the Rudin family. [ING Chief Executive] Rod Martin was on a plane, and in seconds he said, “Absolutely, here’s half a million dollars.” The Rudin family gave a million through their foundation. It was a telling moment in terms of relationships.

■ What is your strategy for making good with corporate partners in the wake of the cancellation?
Wittenberg said she sees opportunity for greater engagement and feedback from the running community.
Photo by: Getty Images

WITTENBERG: It depends on each partner. It was a combination. There are elements of making good going forward, and elements of restitution and then changing aspects of each deal. But we will keep that information with each partner.

■ Are there any partners who get a seat at a future marathon for free?
WITTENBERG: No.

■ Were there any partners lost?
WITTENBERG: No.

■ How did you come to an agreement with ESPN in its broadcast deal?
WITTENBERG: TV was the easiest in many ways. It’s as though we decided to simply extend the deal by one year. The advertiser’s money that went to the broadcaster went back to the advertiser. Our rights and the production deal — we had insurance on production — so we were able to put everyone back to where we started. So it’s as if we added a sixth year to ESPN’s deal. That was clean and simple.

What are the structural and philosophical changes to your organization to come from the disaster?
WITTENBERG: Even before the storm, we realized we were unbelievable at communicating to people when we are one-on-one, and on-site. But we need to better communicate outside of that. We can better communicate and explain to people why we do certain things. There is opportunity for greater regular engagement and feedback from our running community. We need to keep up the message that we’re a not-for-profit that wants to be one of the most helpful institutions in the city.

■ Companies in the endurance space have signed deals to offer insurance that will pay refunds in the case of cancellation. Could that work with the marathon?
WITTENBERG: You have insurance that covers if the event is canceled, and other insurance that works if the runner cancels. In the latter, can that work with our case? Possibly. We will talk with companies about that. We had a no-refund policy, including if the event was canceled, and now we’re evaluating whether we evolve to have a refund policy and insure against that.

■ Has your organization ever faced any challenge from a business or public relations standpoint like this storm?

WITTENBERG: No. It was rough going at the time. For people who know us — which isn’t everybody — we tried our best to do the best we could for the people of New York and our runners at every turn. Facts changed, things changed, the situation got complicated.

And it’s still early, and there are still lessons we’re going to learn from it. This is a city of resiliency and a city of going forward. When you look at the mayor and this organization and what we do, it’s all, How do you uplift and go forward? And [the storm] was a moment for pause, and something else was needed. I think there wasn’t a lot that was going to change. Now everyone has the benefit of that experience.

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