December 8, 2011

Gyms’ PR strategy doesn’t work out

In a world of 24-hour information, quality PR work is crucial.

When the Baltimore Colts moved out of town under the cover of darkness in 1984, the team pretty much cemented its place in the Bad PR Moves Hall of Fame. But last week, Bally Total Fitness took a page out of the Colts’ playbook anyway, completing a sale of 171 of its clubs to competitor LA Fitness — without telling its members. Other than a vague, one-paragraph statement on both companies’ websites, and two days’ notice of an early closing on November 30, gym members were given no information about the sale, or what it would mean for them.

This communication blackout triggered an escalating PR nightmare. At my local former-Bally-now-LA Fitness, members arrive with no idea that club ownership has changed, and are surprised to find they must now wait in long lines to receive new membership cards and sign new paperwork. Familiar staff members are gone. Bally’s Facebook page features stories about memberships suddenly canceled, gyms abruptly closed and fees arbitrarily charged. All the while, Bally and LA Fitness remain silent.

In an earlier blog post on crisis communications, AB&C’s director of public relations John Orr stressed the importance of maintaining a constant flow of open, honest interaction. Surely a corporate takeover should have prompted both companies’ PR teams to go into overdrive, executing a carefully planned crisis communications plan. But outside of a short email from Bally to its members stating they should notice no changes, there have been no press releases, no staff on hand at clubs to answer questions, not even a single Facebook post. In a world of 24-hour information, it’s both surprising and disheartening to see two large corporations dismiss the opportunity for some quality PR work.

As PR professionals, we would love all our stories to be good news. Of course, that’s not always the case. That’s why it’s so important to be in front of the story and tell your side before someone else does. In this case, there may have been some good stories to tell in the takeover. For example, perhaps the gyms that are closing will be remodeled. Maybe LA Fitness plans to purchase new equipment or add new classes. On the other hand, maybe those gyms will close permanently or membership fees will skyrocket. Like every other customer, I can only guess. When you leave your PR to guesswork, it’s hardly ever positive and almost never accurate. And that’s not good.

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