Making Lemonade: Portland Marathon takes on Occupy Portland

Have you ever been faced with a completely out-of-the-blue, totally unanticipated problem that could ruin your event?  Les Smith confronted just such a situation during the October 9 10,000+ participant Portland Marathon and Half Marathon.  It was called Occupy Portland – Portland’s version of the current Occupy Wall Street movement.   A few days before the Marathon, Occupy Portland set up camp in two parks near the Marathon finish line.

By carefully analyzing and negotiating, Les and his staff managed to turn the near disaster into, according to Les, “the best thing that has ever happened to the Portland Marathon.”  In Les’ own words, here’s how.

“I have thought a lot about what we did.  It was textbook negotiations much like I tell my clients to do when faced with picketing or a strike (editor’s note:  Les is a management labor relations attorney).

1. In these situations always have a general PR person prepared and ready.
2. All persons on the team must communicate, communicate and communicate.
3. Have a spokesperson who is comfortable in front of a camera and knows how to answer the questions and not deviate from the party line.
4. Do not do a “no comment.”   To not comment is missing an opportunity.
5. Have a plan that includes a far out reaching goal; have your real goal; and, have a fall back plan.
6. Always have a way to call a “time out” in a way that does not show weakness.
7. Bargain from a position of strength…..line up your allies.
8. Never bargain against yourself……i.e., do not say we will give you X and without a response give up something because you think it will create the deal.
9. Always look the other side in the eye….and dress better than they do.  Never lower yourself to the adversary’s level.
10. Do not apologize.  Act confident.  Do not act submissive.
11. Give your negotiator authority to make the deal you want…but not the deal you do not want. As noted above, when it does not go well be able to call timeout…..allowing the Negotiator to confer with the Owner/Principle.
12.  Never allow the Principle at the bargaining table.

Jeff Galloway, Bill Rodgers, Les Smith, Frank Shorter
Olympians Jeff Galloway, Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter with Les Smith

It really was text book… Why?   Because one could clearly see the nature and make up of those on the other side.  They had lots of slogans and signs but no central core.  Plus, you could appeal to their interests and do so truthfully while obtaining the goals we wanted.   The key was getting the right group of ‘them’ together; then force the issue and convey our message; and finally, then get agreement.  Both sides saw it as a ‘win.’

All of this was done within the guidelines I have outlined.  Turned out I was the public spokesperson for the Portland Marathon.  I never once answered a question from the press as they wanted an answer.  Instead, I used the politician’s tact of just getting our message out…in our terms.  In this case, everything good about the Portland Marathon.  The few references to Occupy Portland were made in this context….again at great advantage to our side without putting down the opposition.
(See, for example, Occupy Portland protesters working with Portland Marathon organizers)

So what happened:  The ‘Agreement’ was:
1) OC would vacate one of the two parks they were in  (those by the Marathon finish line…but parks we really never use during the  event and in which Marathoners are not permitted…we always fence around these parks…to protect the grass!).  The OC said they would leave everything in place in the second park;
2) OC on Saturday helped the Portland Marathon crew build the fencing around the two parks.
3) OC agreed it could not leave the one park they were in after 4 am Sunday morning of the Marathon.  They had a corridor they could leave during the day with police escort in the event of emergency but once out they could not come back into the Park.
4) OC could do a “parade” starting at 3:30 pm from about the 25 mile mark of the Marathon course (8.5 hours after the start).  But they could not interfere with the 400 or so walkers who were still coming in on the course at this time.

About 4 to 4:30 pm as we were tearing down our finish scaffolding the OCs started to drift back to the parks in our finish area.  True to their promise they helped us dismantle fence and they cleaned up trash that the Marathon had caused.  (So we got no blame from the city about causing trash etc….preserving our “Green Image.”)

Overnight the other OC folks drifted back into the empty park and by Monday morning nearly everything was back to where it was before we started to build in the area on Saturday. OC wanted the City, OC and the PM to do a joint press conference Sunday evening at 8:00 pm.   I told my crew no way…the battle is over and we won.

So we took advantage of the opportunity, get something from it (all the good media attention about the event) and also did not suffer any impact from what could have been an ugly situation.  Stated another way, I do not consider us lucky…I believe we saw the situation…made it an opportunity and made the most out of it that we could.  And it was fun!”

Has your event ever faced a potential disaster?  Comment on this post and your story could become our next blog article.

3 thoughts on “Making Lemonade: Portland Marathon takes on Occupy Portland

  1. As a recovering race director for triathlons I can understand how Mark and Les feel about unforeseen circumstances. I too faced unforeseen changes to a triathlon I directed in the late 90’s. The original bike course was to exit from the swim onto the park road heading out on one of the main roads in Georgetown, TX. I checked and double checked to make sure all my ducks were in a row. I thought to myself “We are ready to go”. For some reason I forgot to check to make sure the “road duck” was in place. The day before the start of the race, Williamson County Roads Department decided to pave the park road with tar and gravel. The race almost got changed into a swim-run dualthlon. I brought all the staff together and discussed Plan B. How do we get swimmers onto the bike without making them ride through tar and gravel? The San Gabriel River, where we held the swim, had a foot bridge that allowed access to the main road of the bike course. With a little reconfiguring of the swim start/finish area we were able to get the swimmers to walk their bikes across the foot bridge and mount their bikes on the start of the bike section of the race. The triathlon was a success and everyone had a good race without any further problems.
    As a race director I had learned to chart a course for each event with a navigation strategy. This strategy helped me prepare well and convey a message of trust and confidence to volunteers and participants. A good acronym for this is PLANAHEAD.
    Predetermine a course of action. Lay out your goals. Adjust your priorities. Notify key personnel. Allow time for acceptance. Head into action. Expect problems. Always point to the successes. Daily review your plan.

    Happy race directing.
    Chris Leon

  2. Many of you don’t know that I was an event owner/manager in my native Australia before doing the same in the USA. Sometimes we encountered human mobs but I have seen more colorful problems with of the non-human kind. Once while running a cross country race, a herd of 30 horses entered the field. At least I was the better dressed but I don’t think they noticed as I had to jump over a fence to avoid a hoof print back massage. As it turns out the horses ran all the way to the finish line and won but were disqualified because they joined the race via a fence a farmer left open at about mile one. Another time…when were setting up a triathlon near Melbourne, we never expected that a rare breeding event meant that the start beach was covered (you couldn’t see much sand) with crabs touting shells 8 inches in diameter; we tried to make reasonable offers but those thumb size pinchers were quite persuasive. The lesson is – when event planning, expect the unexpected and be prepared to be flexible.

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