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Virgin Active’s initial #woke CCTV reply: Should PR teams alone have access to social?

Virgin Active was called out last week for placing its CCTVs near the showering facilities in the gym – which several users deemed as “intrusive”. The issue, which then escalated to its Facebook page, saw netizens commenting on the matter, leading to an employee of the gym responding on behalf of the brand.

The unnamed employee explained that the CCTV was placed where “female members can pick up a bathrobe before using the relax and recovery facilities”. He/She further commented that the gym “celebrate[s] body positivity just like anyone living in the now times” and “is morally obligated to stay woke” and “is part of the me too movement”.

Err, a little confused over the response? Well, you aren’t alone.

Not long after, Virgin Active put out an official statement on its Facebook page – which seemed far more in line with its brand – that the particular employee will be sent for counselling and training.

The post further read that the CCTV was installed with the safety of its members and staff in mind, and that the gym will be taking into serious consideration the suggestion to re-angle the camera more towards the fire escape following this incidence. Temporary signage has also been placed near the CCTV for female members to be aware of its location, while it waits to receive permanent signage from its contractor.

Employees are the unofficial PR people

According to experts in the PR industry Marketing spoke to, although all employees are “unofficial PR people”, social media accounts should be restricted to the PR teams to avoid having “too many voices” to articulate the company’s intended message.

Lars Voedisch, founder and managing director, PRecious Communications said that a brand should be clear about the rules of engagement in social. Knowing the do’s and don’ts, brands have to train the employees on the three “R”s: Representation, Responsibility and Respect.

“The first step would be to educate staff on the company’s rules of engagement. Especially in a crisis it’s best not to get emotionally involved. It’s crucial to be empathetic in acknowledging what others feel, but sticking to facts and showing what the company is doing to mitigate the situation. Crisis communication needs certain skills – and should be left to the teams prepared for it,” he added.

Voedisch was of the view that employees have to be clear that when engaging in discussions, they are representing the company and are seen as spokespeople. “A comparison would be – is that particular employee allowed to speak to traditional media? If the answer is “no”, then probably he or she shouldn’t comment on social media either,” he said.

Meanwhile, Martin Alintuck, managing director SEA, Ruder Finn Asia said that companies need to effectively communicate to all employees its stand on the issue and how it will be responding to keep the staffs “in the know”. He added that this acts as a yardstick for all employees to align with.

“In this case, the company also needs to be sensitive to its customers’ and employees’ concerns and create internal platforms where their concerns/thoughts regarding the issue can be raised and addressed,” he said.

The blurring of public and private

This is not the first gym to have garnered negative attention due to comments made by an employee. Last November, Fitness First Singapore put out a statement on social media regarding the suspension of one of its employees, who body-shamed a woman for ordering at an ice cream parlor. The employee, who is a trainer at the gym, posted a picture of a woman near an ice cream store on his Instagram stories function calling her “fat” and described the act as “disgusting”.

Alintuck said that companies need to be aware that what they say, might be repeated inaccurately or may be misrepresented on an employee’s personal or private accounts. “While measures can be taken and guidelines provided to help employees understand their role as the company’s brand advocates, it is just a fact-of-life that no company can police and control personal content its employees post,” he added

Without infringing on employees’ personal rights online, the company can educate its staff on the approach to take in social media. Best practices call for developing a PR and social media handbook that is shared with all employees and covers the company’s standards and approaching when dealing with issues on social media.

According to Alintuck, trainings and social media crisis simulations also help to ensure employees can act according to protocol under “pressure”, while rewarding employees who have done a good job of being a company’s ambassador encourages others to do the same.

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