Industry consultants often say that a key factor in a club’s success is its skill in communicating with members and potential members. Using the right tools to promote special offers, highlight new programming and services, and create a sense of belonging can boost revenue and retention rates. Although establishing a clear plan for day-to-day communications is important, the real measure of a club’s communications strategy often occurs when it is faced with news it would rather not share.

During the past few months, a number of clubs have been put to the test when forced to respond to reports linking their facilities or staff to negative incidents.

The year started off with the news that the owner of an independent fitness club in Louisiana had shot his wife before taking his own life. On that same day in January, a female employee of a Sport & Health club in Maryland was sexually assaulted and robbed as she left the club after closing. In March, a masseur at an independent club in New Jersey was arrested and charged with criminal sexual contact following allegations from a female club member. In May, a member of a 24 Hour Fitness club in California died after being stabbed in the club’s parking lot. Both Sport & Health and 24 Hour responded immediately to inquiries from Club Industry in those respective cases.

Club operators often will not reply to media queries about incidents like these or will say only that their policy is not to comment on open criminal investigations. However, this lack of response is not best practice when it comes to queries from members who may be concerned about their own safety or privacy, says Christine Thalwitz, director of communications for ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers, Charlottesville, VA.

“The worst thing you can do is not get back to people and not formulate a response,” Thalwitz says. “Any response is better, even if it is just that the organization is still trying to gather information. I think it’s important to at least put out a statement that says we are aware of this and we are looking into it and we will follow up.”

NEXT PAGE: MEMBERS AS SPOKESPEOPLE

Even if club management chooses not to respond to media queries and instructs staff not to comment to the media, no one can stop members from speaking to the media, so management must keep members informed about the situation and what the club is doing about it, Thalwitz says.

Casey Conrad, president at Communication Consultants, says that club operators should count on the fact that their members will be interviewed by the media. By keeping members informed about how the club is handling the situation, members can make that publicity more positive rather than more negative.

“You want to be sure they’re on your side,” Conrad says. Rather than waiting for something bad to happen, club owners should regularly communicate with members about all the measures taken to protect members’ safety and privacy. This way, if an adverse situation arises, members can confidently say they know that the club looks out for its members, she says.

Thalwitz also stresses the importance of being proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to how a facility communicates bad news. Clubs that are caught off guard will have to scramble to put together a response, and it will take longer for them to be able to address members’ concerns, Thalwitz says, adding that delays in response often lead to misinterpretations and miscommunications.

Club owners should establish a central point of communication for dealing with difficult situations, Thalwitz says.

“Having protocols up front for team members is really helpful, as is identifying who the key spokespeople are within the organization, so when questions come up, team members immediately know to whom they should refer this member,” Thalwitz says.

Staff should not be put in the position of confirming, denying or commenting on a story reported by the press, Thalwitz says, but should respond to members by saying that they understand their concerns and would like to put them in touch with the right person.

NEXT PAGE: STAYING ON MESSAGE WITH SOCIAL MEDIA

This referral response also should be applied to social networking sites. Although Thalwitz says a club’s Facebook page usually is not the best place to communicate the details of difficult situations to members, she says it can present an opportunity to show how the company is responding to the issue if a member initiates a discussion online.

Staff members should monitor the sites and reply to comments by giving the elected spokesperson’s contact details and inviting the poster to call or come into the club to receive the answers to their questions, Thalwitz says. Simply deleting posts is not a good idea.

“I think that breeds questions or misunderstandings about why is this being deleted and creates a bit of panic,” she says.

Conrad agrees that it is important for operators to monitor their club’s presence online—and not just in the wake of a negative incident. Being truly proactive, she says, means not just having a plan in place for dealing with these adverse situations after they occur but laying the groundwork that will help counter their effects ahead of time.

“The Internet makes all news evergreen,” she says, adding that although club operators cannot make the bad news go away, they can take steps to ensure that they receive regular, positive publicity, too. That way, if potential members search for information about the club online, they will see that good news along with the bad, Conrad says.