Event Media Relations: Lessons Learned At Crisis Time -- By Richard Finn 

On Saturday, November 3, 2007, in the heart of Manhattan in Rockefeller Plaza, the best professional marathon runners in the country stood in the glare of the NBC/Today show cameras at the starting line of the USA Olympic Men’s Marathon trials race.

The 131 runners were about to embark on a 26.2-mile run through the city streets and Central Park to the finish line where the top three finishers would win a spot on the Olympic team that would race in Beijing later that year.

As important as the race was for the runners, it was equally as significant for the organization that was staging the event – New York Road Runners (NYRR). It was an opportunity for NYRR to showcase and build its brand as the preeminent road running organization in the country before a national audience and media.

And on that Saturday it was my job as the Director of Media Relations for NYRR to make sure that everything in the press room, situated just a few feet away from the Central Park finish line, went smoothly for the assembled media.

Except for a slight glitch in the live TV feed in the early miles of the race that we corrected, the race was unfolding smoothly. Ryan Hall, a pre-race favorite and star in the making, was leading and the crowds were spirited and large all along the course.

The initial rumors in the pressroom were that a runner had gone down on the course, that an ambulance and medical personnel had been summoned. The rumors soon turn into reports of an athlete being taken to a local hospital and that he had died.

Still, the race went on, and I stayed silent on any inquiries from the media on any possible “situation’ unfolding and focused on the race until the final stages when I got word that I should go over to the medical tent to meet with my CEO and others.

It was at that time in the meeting with the CEO, medical director and event operational director, that I learned that indeed, 28-year-old Ryan Shay had collapsed on the race course about 5 1⁄2 miles into the course, had been transported to a local hospital and then had been pronounced dead about 30 minutes later.

Our first concern from a public relations perspective was to learn all the facts possible of what happened on the racecourse. How many minutes did it take for us to get our medical staff to his side? Did they have the appropriate medical equipment? And then how long did it take us to summon and get an ambulance to his side?

Before we met with the journalists, we needed to construct an almost min- ute-by-minute timeline of those crucial first moments when Ryan went down.

Only when we had all the facts did the CEO come to the media room after the conclusion of the race and make a statement and answered questions. The facts proved that NYRR had the appropriate medical staff on site, that we were quick enough to get to him to administer help and that an ambulance was on site within minutes.

Unfortunately our efforts were not enough. As it turned out, Ryan had a pre-existing enlarged heart condition and had pretty much passed away as soon as he collapsed.

It was a heart wrenching time for all of us, as many of us knew Ryan well. In the stories the next day and following weeks, more and more was learned about Ryan’s pre-existing condition, about his love of running and background. It was not suggested that NYRR had been lax in its medical preparedness or staffing.

Lessons learned:

1. Don’t panic. As the first line of contact with the journalists, much can be gleaned from your outward demeanor on whether there is a crisis or how serious.

2. Gather all of the facts. Check them numerous times before issuing any type of statement or talking with the media. Journalists have inquisitive minds, they will try to find something that makes a better story, which might mean fnding fault with your organization on how you handled the crisis or if it could have been averted in the first place.

3. Have a crisis communications plan in place prior to your event. Know who is going to do what, and how information is going to be relayed. Keep the number of staff involved to a minimum if possible.

Richard Finn is a veteran sports media executive, publicist and journalist with more than three decades in the industry. He was director of media relations and sports strategy for New York Road Runners and the New York City Marathon from 1999-2013. Presently, he is working as national media consultant for USA Table Tennis.