What can we learn from the social media crisis that grabbed the headlines?

When people think about the causes of a crisis, they typically consider things like fatal accidents and catastrophic incidents.

But sometimes a crisis can be caused by something as simple as a poorly considered social media post.

PureGym found itself in full crisis media management mode this week after one of its franchises made a “wholly unacceptable” post about slavery.

The Luton and Dunstable branch posted on Facebook that "slavery was hard and so is this" regarding a workout designed to "celebrate black history month".

That post caused outrage on social media and, as is so often the case, the story was quickly picked up by the mainstream media.

PureGym sorry for ‘unacceptable’ slavery post BBC News

Backlash as gym advertises '12 years of slave' workout to mark Black History Month Sky News

PureGym slammed for launching slavery-based workout for Black History Month Metro

'Slavery was hard and so is this': PureGym is slammed for 'celebrating' Black History Month with '12 Years of Slave' workout Daily Mail

Additionally, the post has been condemned by politicians and by British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, who is also an ambassador for the gym chain.

A day later and the story was continuing to be discussed on the 24-hour news channels.

So, how has the gym group - the UK's largest by membership - responded?

Well, it has done a lot right. It acted quickly – crucial when a crisis is being played out on social media - removing the offending post and issuing an apology.

It said: “PureGym apologises unreservedly for a post regarding Black History Month that was made today by our gym in Luton & Dunstable.

“This post was wholly unacceptable, was not approved or endorsed by the company and was removed when it was brought to our attention.

“We take this matter extremely seriously and are urgently investigating how and why this post was made.

“Thank you to those people who commented on this post and for raising this with us.”

Overall, that’s a pretty good apology. It feels like they are genuinely sorry and there are none of those “we are sorry if…” clauses that organisation often seem to clumsily adopt.

And by stating that it is investigating the post, it included some of the ‘action’ that is so important in crisis media management responses.

Perhaps it will go further with that action in time and introduce more diversity training. This is something Dina Asher-Smith called for in her post. It was also an approach Starbucks took when it found itself at the centre of a crisis, introducing ‘racial bias training’ for staff at 8,000 stores.

PureGym went on to stress that its 271 gyms across the country are all responsible for their own social media accounts and the content that goes out on them.

And that is probably the key point in terms of looking at how it and other organisations can avoid similar social media crises in the future.

Approval channels

There are many organisations where franchises and branches have their own social media accounts. Local brands talking to local people has much going for it and I don’t believe that social media activity necessarily needs to centralised, despite what happened here.

There does, however, need to be checks and policies in place to ensure that what is going out fits with the company’s values and tone of voice.

As someone who once had to get every social media post approved by the senior management team while working for a public sector organisation, I would certainly not advocate a lengthy sign-off process.

But there are simple checks that can be introduced to prevent gaffes that can turn into crisis media management incidents. On our social media training courses, we recommend these steps:

  • Has anyone else seen the proposed post – how did they react?
  • Could people be offended by the post?
  • Is this right for your audience?
  • Will the audience think what you think?
  • If you are using humour, will people understand it?

Additionally, organisations need to ensure that everyone who has access to their social media accounts – whether they are centralised or more local – must have had some social media training.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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