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How one gym chain handled a social media storm
October 6, 2020

It was a serious error of judgment that provoked a Twitterstorm. “Here we go again,” you might think.  However, the anger directed at PureGym after one of its personal trainers compared his workout regime to the slave trade was fierce and particularly unwelcome for a business in a sector that has been struggling with the effects of COVID.  It’s the kind of issue we handle a lot in our crisis communications courses.

Personal trainer Matt Simpson posted a new workout for his clients on the Facebook page for PureGym’s Luton and Dunstable branch with the words: “Slavery is hard and so is this.”  The exercise programme was intended to “celebrate black history month”.  Entitled “12 Years of Slave,” an obvious reference to the Oscar-winning movie, it included 12 different exercises.

“Wow, I’m just gobsmacked that someone thought this was okay to post,” said one Facebook comment while another described the post as: “Wrong, insensitive and horrendous on all levels”.  According to a third comment on social media: “’This is one of the most tasteless marketing ads I’ve ever seen. Shameful!”

 

Ironically, we’ve just run a number of crisis communications courses over the last few weeks with similar, but fictional scenarios.  So how well did PureGym, one of the biggest operators in the country, handle this crisis?

They get top marks for acting quickly.  We used to talk about the “golden hour” during crisis situations.  This was the hour in which you had the opportunity to respond and to get onto the front foot, taking charge of the situation.  If you fumbled this initial 60 minutes or so, you’d spend the whole news cycle, be that days or weeks, on the back foot, trying to catch up and defend yourself.  These days, with the advent of social media, that golden time is more likely to be a few minutes.

PureGym has taken action rapidly in this case and, as a result, its statement has been widely used in social and conventional media.  “This post is wholly unacceptable, was not approved or endorsed by the company, and was removed as soon as it was brought to our attention,” the statement says.  “Each of our 271 gyms has its own social media channels which are run locally.  We take this matter extremely seriously and are urgently investigating how and why this post was made.”

 

It’s a good statement.  The company uses simple natural language.  PureGym, it says, “Apologises unreservedly”.  There’s no qualification or weasel wording here – it’s clear simple and unmistakable.  The statement then goes on to explain how this situation happened.  Again, there’s no attempt by the chain to excuse itself.

 

More importantly you’ll notice that it talks about taking action as well. As we say in our crisis communications workshops – you have to apologise or sympathise but taking action is also important.  In this case PureGym does the obvious – and something we always recommend – and that is to talk about carrying out an investigation. There are various reasons that we explain to participants during our crisis communications courses about why this is a good action message to promote.

From the media coverage so far, it looks as if PureGym has not done any interviews and this sounds reasonable for an incident of this seriousness.  In case of injury or death you would certainly want to put forward a spokesperson to at least make a statement and answer questions from journalists even if they don’t do media interviews.  We explore these options with clients of our crisis communications training courses and make recommendations to them, alongside their PR companies and in-house comms teams.

We work with a large number of gyms, health clubs, spas and other players in the health and wellbeing sector.  Because of the number of staff that they employ, the branches that they have and the nature of the work that they do, there are so many instances where things could go wrong in this industry.

We’ve created scenarios around claims of injury, assault by staff, fires flood and swimming pool accidents.  If you work in health and fitness you don’t want to think about these unfortunate incidents but, of course, they should be part of your risk management and crisis planning.

We hope that this incident now blows over quickly for PureGym and the hurt and upset that this initial post has quite understandably caused will ease soon.  The important point is that the crisis communications training courses that we provide for health clubs, gyms, spas, hotels and other venues as well as for law firms, financial services firms and architects take place before the crisis – and not afterwards.

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