The Run for [Whose] Roses

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I watched with interest last weekend as the 145th Kentucky Derby navigated one of the greatest communications challenges it has ever faced – the controversial decision to disqualify Maximum Security and grant the coveted roses to second-place finisher Country House. It was the first time in the history of the Derby that the stewards took such an action.

I'm not a horse racing expert, by any means. Nor are most average viewers of the Derby. But as soon as the disqualification was announced, thousands of self-appointed horse racing “experts” took to social media, especially Twitter, to express their frustration.

Communicators at the Churchill Downs Media Center moved swiftly to respond. I took note of a few observations of their response:

  • They engaged on social media immediately, even as the objection still was being evaluated by the stewards – a hallmark of responding to a social media crisis.
  • Much of their posting was video coverage of what had occurred, which seemed at face value to be transparent and the best available option. But while they posted early, they did not continue to post, nor did they make a statement about the decision readily available on their social platforms or website.
  • The use of video gave those questioning the decision a closer perspective of how the decision was made – including video from inside the announcer’s booth as the race ended and from subsequent coverage of the objection and the disqualification. They continued to share this footage through retweets and new posts, which allowed the social media chatter to continue unabated.
  • They put out front the stewards who made the decision at a live press conference within a few hours of the race to answer questions and provide clarity on the process that led to the disqualification.
  • However, the Chief Steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission was criticized highly by media for refusing to take any questions from media after the news briefing, where she delivered a 107-word statement and quickly left the briefing. 
  • Some of the Derby’s official social posts after the race seemed “tone deaf” – posts of fashion, cocktails and horse selfies seemed too casual and flip as the controversy was unfolding.
  • A follow up statement from Churchill Downs, as reported on ESPN.com was cold and formal, especially in the context of the highly charged, emotional response from the racing community and Derby fans alike.

All that said, there were some significant issues with their response, and the armchair quarterbacks of PR will no doubt add to my initial observations.

The story is still developing, as the owner of Maximum Security now has filed an appeal of the decision and is suggesting litigation may be close behind. Although this was an expected outcome, it leaves even more questions – and communications – still to come.