Losing the Battle Winning the PR War
One of the most common war strategies surmises a General must sometimes lose a battle to win a war. When a crisis situation hits your business or attacks your character, you must be cognizant of that war adage because sometimes, losing a small customer service battle will help you win the larger public relations war.
In December 2007, a story circulated across the country involving a man who was suing a Las Vegas Athletic Club for gender discrimination. The 45-year-old man filed a complaint with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, alleging the health club was giving special discounts to women, which he claimed was illegal under state law. But the story held larger ramifications across the state of Nevada. The complaint had the potential to end all “Ladies Nights” at bars and nightclubs that offered free drinks to women as a way of luring them into their bars.
It didn’t take long for every local newspaper and national newscasts to pick up on this controversial lawsuit. The story involved hot topic with an articulate victim who made a great case to reporter.
The disgruntled gym member talked freely to reporters why he felt he was being discriminated against.
“Imagine a whites-only country club or whites-get-in-free deal or something like that,” the gym member said, as reported by the New York Times. “When things are based on race, we have kind of a knee-jerk reaction because we’ve had poor race relations in America for 400 years now. But when it comes to treating people the same based on sex, that’s much more recent in our memory.”
The gym member made a logical argument that most men would probably support. He simply wanted the same membership price that his wife paid. The gym should have quietly given this man the price break, and the problem would have gone away. Instead, the manager at the health club remained stern and refused any discounts for the customer. Resentment quickly began to brew within the disgruntled customer, which is never good for any crisis communications situation. A disgruntled or angry accuser will always make controversial and inflammatory remarks, making the story more sensational and intriguing for reporters.
Because the manager refused to give the gym member a discount, the public relations nightmare grew worse. The health club now had to deal with national negative publicity that could potentially alter the pricing structure for all bars and nightclubs in Nevada. The owner of that gym made many enemies with just one discount refusal. And to think it all would have gone away by appeasing one customer.
The health club could have diffused some of the tension by saying they were trying a new marketing approach to get more women into their health club. Management could have said they were reviewing the policy to see if the pricing structure was equitable for men and women. The club could have said they were researching a similar discount that appealed just to men, like discounts on weight trainers. Instead, the health club took a combative approach and attacked the alleged victim in the press. This is the club’s statement as published in the New York Times.
“Our men are very, very happy with how we conduct our business,” the vice president of the company said. “This particular person is the only one who has had a problem with it. There are legitimate discrimination issues out there, and I wish he’d spend his time addressing those that really need addressing.”
How do you feel reading that statement? After reading how the health club tried to demonize the complainant, I want to side with the customer over the health club. I don’t want to pay more than women for a gym membership. Subconsciously, it’s a David versus Goliath battle, and the media loves these kinds of conflicts. In their view, one man had the strength to take on a large company over principal. Most people want to rally for the little guy in those types of situations, which is why the underdog is always a popular pick at sports bars.
There was no reason to demonize this customer in the public domain. The club’s statement practically forces you to choose sides, which is never a safe approach when your reputation is at stake. You don’t want to give people an opportunity to root against you.
So remember, if you find yourself dealing with a disgruntled or angry customer, think twice about giving his anger time to boil. Sometimes a small concession can go a long way when fighting or preventing a crisis communications situation.
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Mark Macias is a former Executive Producer with WNBC and Senior Producer with WCBS. He’s also the author of the communications book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media. Macias now consults small and large businesses on how to get publicity. You can read more on his firm at MaciasPR.