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Should NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg Be Fired?

Posted Nov 07 2012 3:51pm

My friend Kai wrote a fantastic post called Lay Off Mary Wittenberg . He wonders why Mary Wittenberg , CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR) , is taking most of the fall for the terrible decisions to not cancel the NYC Marathon after Hurricane Sandy and to then cancel the race at the last minute.

Kai argues that the blame belongs to more than just one person, and Mary is a person who’s done some incredible things for the NYRR organization so people should not be so quick to call for her firing.

At first I agreed.

When I read that people were demanding she be fired, I thought “Of course she should not be fired!” The real fuck up was Mayor Bloomberg’s. It was his decision not to cancel the race, his decision to let 47,000 runners hang out on Staten Island with their free coffee and bagels while parts of that same island were destroyed, people lost everything and bodies were still being discovered.

Whether or not Mary had any power to persuade him otherwise, I don’t know. But regardless, I don’t think she should be fired for the decision not to cancel the race.

That being said, I do think Mary Wittenberg should be fired.

NYRR puts on phenomenally well-organized races, yes, but there is a lot more to running a company — one members pay money to belong to — than just being good at one specific thing.

I’ve always been astounded by NYRR’s lack of communication and inability to learn from every single shit show that hits their social pages – and there have been many. There was controversy over the NYC Half Marathon lottery after NYRR changed how it works but didn’t communicate this to people paying to enter the lottery. There was controversy after NYRR decided to remove marathon baggage check but didn’t communicate this until well after the race entry fees were paid. There is always a lot of noise on their Facebook page from members wanting simply to understand, to be communicated with, to be looped in, to not be left in the dark about events they are paying for.

And each time, NYRR continues to fail to communicate and they continue to fail to respond to the criticism or moderate comments.

The issue culminated this past week, with heated Facebook wall posts ranging from people demanding the marathon be cancelled to sharing petitions to have it canceled to threatening attacks on runners who choose to participate in the race.

There were thousands upon thousands of comments on the NYRR and ING New York City Marathon Facebook pages, almost all scathingly negative. These comments were not moderated in any way; in fact, there was barely any official postings from NYRR at all. When they did post an update, it was well after the news already revealed the information. But those posts were few and far between.

NYRR had ample time over the last two years to develop a communication plan, establish a social media policy, hire the a social media or community manager.  Someone from the organization should be on those Facebook pages. Someone from the organization should be offering the updates to the very members and marathon participants who paid money for this race and have a right to know what is going on.

Why did marathon runners find out the marathon was finally canceled on the news, with no word at all from NYRR until the following DAY?

And now, after they already handled the entire debacle as poorly as possible, they STILL aren’t offering any information. Their last official Facebook update was November 2. Today is November 7. Thousands of runners are still waiting to hear what will happen to their race fees? Will they be donated? Will they go towards their entry fees for next year’s race? Will they go into NYRR’s pockets? And they want to know what, exactly, is the policy for next year’s race? Are they expected to pay again? While this Runner’s World article provides some much-needed information, there are still many more questions from people who have a right to know.

And why are registrants learning official NYRR information from Runner’s World in the first place? Why are they learning it from the news?

Why won’t NYRR communicate with their members? Do they not see that would be a simple way to appease many of the frustrated, angry people leaving negative messages about them on their own Facebook page?

If NYRR is still working on the details and doesn’t know the answers yet themselves, an update saying that much would quiet a lot of the noise. People — customers — just want to know their concerns are heard, their interests are in play.

What it comes down to is that Mary Wittenberg is not just the CEO of the marathon and she is not not just the CEO of the races. She is the CEO of the entire NYRR organization. As such, it is her responsibility to ensure the organization runs professionally. It is her responsibility to listen to her paying members and customers, and take their interests into consideration. It is her responsibility to take the mistakes she made and learn from those mistakes so they don’t happen again

Mary Wittenberg excels at certain parts of her job. She is great at bringing elite and international runners to NYC. She is great at taking primarily NYC races and turning them into world-class events. She is great at inspiring people to run who might never have before. She is great at generating excitement about the NYC Marathon. In fact, I admired her for a long time. But she is not great at being a CEO.

I don’t enjoy every aspect of my job, but it’s a JOB. I can’t pick and choose what I feel like doing and ignore the rest. If I did that, I would be fired.

While the circumstances surrounding the marathon cancellation were not necessarily Mary Wittenberg’s fault, that situation brought to light the serious problem with the way she leads her company. What was once a source of frustration among NYRR members and runners is now a source of frustration to a far greater amount of people. She had plenty of time to identify the communication and customer service issues and fix them. Instead, she let it go — continuing to ignore the very member base that allows her to have an organization to even run —  until the ultimate customer service issue happened last week regarding the 2012 NYC Marathon. This backlash — which continues on their pages today — could have easily been greatly reduced.

So yes, I think Mary should be fired.

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