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LA Fitness fights for reputation in court of public opinion

January 25, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

When LA Fitness threatened to enforce its contract with a heavily pregnant woman who had fallen on hard times, it may have had the letter of the law on its side.  But once the story became public, it was found guilty in the court of public opinion.

LA Fitness is just the latest business to find out that protecting reputation means doing the right thing in the eyes of the outside world, not simply complying with regulations or the law.

Ten years ago, LA Fitness’s dispute with a customer over whether her gym contract could be enforced would have been a private customer service issue in which the company held the balance of power.  Today it requires crisis management skills, is conducted in public and public opinion has far greater influence.

This transparency needs to be understood by businesses and factored into their behaviour, decision-making and communication. The imperative to act in a way that matches the  expectations of external stakeholders is largely driven by the power of social media.  In the old days, customer complaints could be dealt with in private and media criticism dismissed as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.  Today, because of Twitter, Tripadvisor, Google et al, customer service – and crisis management – has become a spectator sport.  Worse, the spectators actually influence the game.  Whether businesses like it or not, this is the reality.

This transparency has raised the bar in terms of ethical and acceptable corporate behaviour – it’s much harder to do bad things and simply get away with it (which, of course, is a good thing).  It also means that the need for thorough crisis  management planning is more pressing than ever: reputational risk assessment, social media monitoring, scenario planning and realistic social media simulations should all form part of this.  A slow or inappropriate response to a crisis will be punished with damage to reputation.

LA Fitness appeared to be forced into a u-turn, and  this never looks good.  Ultimately, the key for businesses is to control the crisis rather than let the crisis control them.  Being able to perceive a crisis from the outside in and acting quickly and appropriately when company behaviour clashes with public expectations is essential to preserve corporate reputation.

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