Inflating Sails after Negative Publicity

Starting an organization is exhilarating. Much positive energy inspires stakeholders to embrace the vision as it moves from conception to reality. Once established, organizations are vulnerable to negative publicity, often which is disseminated widely and broadly through social and other media. No matter how much organizations try to delight their customers, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. I envision entrepreneurs feeling stunned by the impact of unfavorable press, like sailors in the ocean who lost the wind that once sustained them. Typically I focus my interests at the intersection of exercise and leadership. Today, however, I offer my reflections on a specific PR dilemma faced by the leadership of CrossFit®, a provider of exercise services (see video What is CrossFit for more information).

CrossFit® is a form of HIIT that has grown rapidly, particularly in the past five years. In 2007, there were 250 affiliate gyms in the CrossFit® community, whereas today there are more than 10,000, according Brendan Greeley’s article “Is CrossFit Dangerous?,” published in the September 4, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. This newer form of HIIT is just beginning to be examined empirically, perhaps because its growth is significant enough to begin attracting the interest of scholars. As a CrossFit® practitioner, I am eager for research on this form of HIIT. The more that is known, the more this system will improve. This, of course, assumes that the empirical research is credible.

According to Greeley (2014), a gym owner from Columbus, Ohio, and CrossFit® headquarters are suing The Ohio State University researchers and the publisher of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research for allegedly falsifying overuse-injury data that were disseminated in a current issue of the publication. I do not have firsthand knowledge of the research or the lawsuit, and therefore I have no opinion on either. However, the scenario presents a hypothetical opportunity to consider how organizations can or should respond. Negative press represents a challenge many leaders face at some point in their careers. Once circulated, leaders must consider crafting a response. The adage “doing nothing is doing something” applies. Ignoring the publicity may be misconstrued as implicit agreement.

This example raises the question of how much harm is caused by negative publicity. Understandably, most assume that consumers focus on the negative messages and change their outlook toward the organization and its brand. Research suggests that people give more credence to negative than positive messages when they make judgments, and the negative effects are not erased by denials or direct refutations (Monga & John, 2008). On the other hand, negative publicity may not always cause damage.

Consumers with strong brand attitudes are unlikely to be affected by negative brand publicity. These consumers defend their strong attitudes towards the brand, rallying to the brand’s defense by elaborating pro-brand sentiments or mounting counterarguments against the negative publicity, thereby neutralizing its potential negative impact … Firms can also encourage a focus on pro-brand sentiments by shoring up positive associations to the brand, which diverts attention away from the negative publicity (Monga & John, 2008, p. 320).

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recommends four steps to respond to negative publicity. I surmise that Steps 1 and 4 offer interesting options for damage control. The first step is to go directly to the source to challenge what was said, and to do so in a manner that replaces the negative communication with a positive message. Related and perhaps more pertinent to this example is the circulation of competing statistics to counter the negative press. For example, Greeley (2014) reported that “The injury rate [among CrossFit® practitioners]-about 3 per thousand hours-is similar to rates in gymnastics and Olympic lifting and lower than rates for rugby and other competitive contact sports..” (para. 20). He added:

Studies on triathlons range from 1.4 to 5.5 per thousand; for running, 2.5 to 12.1 per thousand. Nothing so far shows that CrossFit is any more dangerous than anything else. Strenuous physical activity carries an injury risk. It may simply be that as more people are doing CrossFit, more people are being injured (Greeley, 2014, para. 20).

Another strongpoint to convey is that CrossFit® may be better than other forms of exercise simply because its strong community motivates people to persist. Many other exercise routines engage athletes for a month or two; however, the sense of community that is unique to CrossFit® effectively encourages participants to persevere (Greely, 2014).

The NFIB’s second and third recommendations are to “make amends” (NFIB, 2011, para 4) and acknowledge mistakes. Making amends pertains mostly to a customer posting negative feedback via social media. Examples of efforts to repair relationships include free dinners or discounts on future purchases via coupons or vouchers. Acknowledging mistakes, of course, applies to the culpable party. People prefer the truth hands-down.

Fourth, the NFIB recommends inviting supporters to voice their positive experiences on behalf of the organization. The websites The First Rule of CrossFit and 7 Reasons CrossFitters Can’t Stop Talking About CrossFit reflect the passion among CrossFit® athletes who talk almost incessantly about their experiences. The sense of community, commitment, and motivation to improve is the strongest I have witnessed in any organization. CrossFit® gym members are powerful advocates, and word-of-mouth messages are the most credible among competing information sources. This phenomenon complements Monga and John’s (2008) research mentioned above.

Henthorne and Henthorne (1994) offered a set of preventative steps, which I share in closing. I am not endorsing applying these steps to the CrossFit® scenario per se; rather, the principles do apply broadly:

(1) Watch for situations that could attract negative publicity and prevent them.

(2) Actively seek out customers’ concerns and complaints, and address them before they escalate.

(3) Scan the environment inside and outside the organization to uncover chatter of perceived problems. Equipped with information, even if not from the source but from the “grapevine,” one may develop an informed response.

(4) Evaluate the likely effect of any incidents on the organization.

Like it or not, negative publicity is a threat all organizations should take seriously. One cannot erase a message once the public receives it; however, the four steps suggested by the NFIB plus the perspectives shared by the Henthornes’ (1994) and Monga and John (2008) may assuage the damage, thus helping leaders refocus the organization toward building its future.

References

Henthorne, B.H. & Henthorne, T.L. (1994). The tarnished image: Anticipating and minimizing the impact of negative publicity in health services organizations. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, ISSN 0736-3761, 07/1994, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp. 44 – 54

Monga, A.B. & John, D.R. (2008). When does negative publicity hurt? The moderating influence of analytic versus holistic thinking. Journal of Consumer Psychology, ISSN 1057-7408, 2008, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 320 – 332

Copyright© 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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