#Watergate – How @sheffieldhalf failed 5,000 runners through poor communications

I ran the Sheffield half-marathon yesterday. Or at least I thought I did…

It’s a tough, demanding course which wasn’t helped by a delay of 50 minutes from the planned 9am start. By 11.50 I’d made the finish line – only to be told by my other half that the race had been ‘cancelled’.

It became apparent by mile three that water was at a premium – official marshalls looked sheepish throughout – and by mile five members of the public were chucking out bottles to runners. Something didn’t add up.

Post-race I caught up on the Twitter reaction which was unanimously negative towards @sheffieldhalf, Sheffield City Council and the race organisers. Let’s forget ‘watergate’ for a moment – the reason why runners vented their fury was the poor communication pre, post and during the race.

iPad + Water (The Mirror)

Pre 9am, an official chap with a microphone kept us vaguely aware of a late start time – not ideal but at least we knew there would be a delay of some sort. As the original 30 minute delay reached 40, then 45 minutes this individual disappeared from view, leaving runners to the middle and back of the race queue wildly speculating on what would happen next.

Annoyance at the delay could have been tempered by three simple communication steps:

1. Chap with microphone could have stayed visible – even if no updates were available – it’s nice to know *something* is happening officially.

2. Race marshalls / volunteers (and there were plenty of them) could have worked through the race queue speaking directly to runners to let them know there would be further delays.

3. Social media could have been used more robustly to inform runners and spectators of the ongoing situation. Many runners around me were checking smartphones for updates or calling friends and family to find out what was happening.

At 10.38am, @sheffieldhalf released a Tweet stating the race had been “cancelled”. This was almost a full hour AFTER runners took it upon themselves to start the race. The poorly written (and spelt!) Tweet received hundreds of ReTweets and many quizzical, mostly irate┬áresponses. There was no effort made to talk back to any of the users who responded to the announcement.


Poorly timed and worded Tweet from @sheffieldhalf

All in all an absolute PR nightmare for the organisers on a dead news day (The Mirror and the BBC were first on the scene, whilst the Metro ran a Twitter-filled report this morning) which could have been handled much better with more robust communications across all media channels, not just digital.

Once the race ‘began’, local radio or a reactive Twitter hashtag (#SheffWater?) could have helped mobilised water supplies amongst residents? Instead, runners relied on individuals buying supplies from Subway, Costa and the like and dishing them out.

As I crossed the finish line ‘Microphone chap’ was doing his best to promote positivity amongst runners and spectators.

“There are loads of negative comments on Twitter, so please Tweet all the positive things you saw today!”

I witnessed plenty of positives; most of all a strong sense of togetherness between runners and residents. But these positives aren’t what the media are focusing on today.

I hope @sheffieldhalf‘s communications efforts improve over the next few days. With runners still unable to find out finish times and refunds confirmed as unavailable, they’re going to need a significant improvement / overhaul.