A Public Relations Primer

Maintaining good public relations at Stone Age Climbing. Photo: Stone Age
Maintaining good public relations at Stone Age Climbing. Photo: Stone Age

By John Burgman

Given the nature of gym climbing, people spend a lot of time standing around and making small-talk; in between all the roping up and resting and chatting about beta, there are bound to be peripheral subjects entering the conversations. Couple this with the realities that gyms inherently have a number of hazards, are often staffed with a young—perhaps inexperienced—workforce, and can play host to accidents ranging from minor to serious, and suddenly any manager has a recipe on his hands for a potential public relations headache.

Compounding matters is that PR protocol has not yet caught up with the rapid growth that gyms have experienced in recent years. Other fitness-based facility industries, such as health clubs, possess a more extensive network of PR specialists and staffers, and many have resources and literature for handling any number of industry-specific issues or even “crises.” But climbing gyms are largely void of such personnel and resources; in climbing, it is often the gym manager, alone, handling all the publicity.

So, what is the best way to effectively handle PR, from the perspective of a climbing gym?

“Don’t rely on your advertising/publicity alone to drive your reputation. Your reputation should be built first and foremost on a superior product,” says Sean Duffy, one of the world’s foremost brand strategists. Duffy is the namesake behind his marketing firm, Duffy Agency, and has worked with diverse clientele ranging from Gatorade and PepsiCo to Ikea and Saab. He says there are thousands of ways for a brand to build a good reputation, but advises taking a systematic approach. “Being first to arrive at a customer insight confers a powerful competitive advantage and is the key to all good marketing and business innovation,” he says.

In the context of a climbing gym, Duffy advises thinking of the business “in 3-D.” A gym has a “core product,” which would be the climbing walls, but it also has “value-add features”—such as pricing plans, staff, lockers, and amenities—and “value-add associations,” which could be any associations beyond those “value-add features” (including partnerships around town and relationships built with other brands). “Be looking across all three dimensions to find ways to innovate, improve and compete,” urges Duffy. All three of those elements can be augmented with their own promotion and marketing.

Repairing a Damaged Reputation

Once a reputation has been established, it’s important for managers to realize that status is never set in stone. This is less of an obvious point than it might seem, as everyone can think of a company, brand, or place—pick any industry—that “used to be good” and then perplexingly lost its way, never to return to that same level of prominence and popularity. So, gym owners should consider maintaining—or repairing—a reputation to always be a systematic process that might not have fast results. Quickly fixing a problem might still take a long time to translate to public awareness.

“I always say that you need to do damage control right away. Correct the problem with a solution before it gets out of hand,” advises Nicole Dunn, CEO of the health and wellness PR agency Dunn Pellier Media. “If five people hear that your business has issues, imagine how fast that word of mouth will travel, and soon enough you will find yourself with a big problem—no customers.”

“Remember, you may not always agree with customer criticism (e.g. consumers often draw conclusions on false information), but if enough of them are forming a negative perception, then it is real and needs to be dealt with swiftly,” says Duffy. “Brand management is perception management.”

While climbing gyms might seem tangential to health and wellness, the dearth of PR experts in the climbing industry means that it’s prudent to reach outward—to strategists like Duffy and Dunn—in an attempt to construct PR protocol for gyms. Specifics for PR correlate to whatever your facility adds to the community, explains Dunn. Figure that out first, and then make an effort to spread the word through media.

“I always ask people to think about what distinguishes your program, product or yourself from others,” Dunn says when describing PR trends and best practices. “Come up with a unique way to portray your expertise or special brand technique. Identify and research five places that you could write content about your brand or contribute to. Some national online suggestions: Forbes, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Entrepreneur, LinkedIn, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and more. For the local side focus on small business publications and local news outlets. Before you approach anyone, come up with content to present to a reporter or journalist: [For example,] Best Climbing Gyms in Los Angeles, [or] The Newest Place in Town to Make Friends—The Climbing Gym, [or] Learn What Climbing Can Do for Your Mind, [or] Top 10 Benefits from Climbing. Come up with content that is filling a need for the community (and the journalist) but at the same time giving your business a boost in the media and a chance to grow and thrive in the community.”

Duffy points out that marketing and promotion are increasingly tech-driven. This can actually benefit small and mid-sized climbing gyms because it means they can have the same tech-reach as larger competitor gyms. He advises gym owners to set aside an afternoon to brainstorm ways that technology could be used “to disrupt or at least innovate” when it comes to promoting and supplementing various aspects of their gym. He thinks the next big idea in the indoor climbing industry is likely to come from such free thinking about technology.

Navigating The Mainstream

There are several instances that can impact a gym’s reputation, but none are more serious than a significant injury occurring at the facility. And such a major event might garner attention and coverage from mainstream media outlets; suddenly an unfortunate incident that might have only been witnessed by a few people inside the gym is reaching thousands far and wide via the evening news broadcast, the morning newspaper, social media, and gossip.

Sarkis Barnett is the Facility Manager at Cleveland Rock Gym, and speaking hypothetically, he stresses the importance of a gym being truthful but also knowing all the facts before going public with PR. “If something serious happens at a gym that interests the mainstream media, we would respond with being completely honest and open about what happened, even if it was our fault,” he says. “First, we would not speak about anything unless we know for sure what happened. Even, say, a climber who decks and his harness is still hanging up on the rope above and it seems like they didn’t secure their harness—we would not speculate or say anything until a proper investigation was completed. If it was something that was our fault, we feel obligated to share it so other gyms, people, and especially climbers can learn from it.”

It would likely be the gym owner—rather than the manager—who would handle the PR for any serious event or injury at a gym, but the manager might still play the important role of handling more casual discourse related to the event when customers start asking questions—and also advising the gym staff on what to say or not say. “I would be dealing with the social media side of things and once an investigation was concluded, I would most likely make a statement on there,” Barnett also notes.

Undesirable gossip or PR doesn’t always come in one fell swoop like it might with a customer injury, however. For example, Bryan Pletta, owner of Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, makes a habit of keeping tabs on his gym’s online reviews at sites like Yelp and Google Maps—and a couple of years ago, he noticed some negative comments starting to appear on the sites. He determined that the negative online reviews—out of the norm for his gym—were the result of poor customer service.
“We had a couple of employees who, while good at times, were not always friendly, smiling faces, and at times were not giving the level of customer service that we had as a standard,” Pletta remembers. Fixing the problem—and, in turn, stopping that negative chatter online—involved staff-wide discussions at the gym, but also coaching specific employees on how to better handle certain situations that might arise.

Pletta points out that it’s important to reach out to the customers in some cases too—not only to show them that you’re aware of their complaints, but also to provide concrete information on how a problem will be fixed—and then be diligent in following through with your promises. He admits that it’s challenging when gym managers find themselves in positions of having to curb negative chatter and gossip once it has already begun; it’s much more manageable to foresee any problems beforehand, and ideally, “don’t ever get to the point where you’re having to battle bad PR.” But Pletta also thinks there can be a silver lining to criticism such as those on Yelp and Google: “Whereas you can view bad reviews as being a negative, in some ways it was actually a positive because it was a tool for me to see problems in my business that were happening every day, whether I got a bad review or not.”

Pletta’s experience underscores another point made by Sean Duffy: Gym managers should sweat the little stuff. “Little things are huge to building your brand reputation,” says Duffy. “The way staff treats customers is probably one of the best examples of this. Treating people well consistently is not always as easy as it sounds, but it can be an effective and inexpensive way for a gym to differentiate its brand.”

A Need For More

Pletta, Barnett, and others acknowledge that climbing, on the whole, doesn’t have as much concrete PR protocol as other industries. Certain procedures will likely become commonplace as standards solidify over time. “I think a lot of operators just sort of do well by accident, without really focusing on PR,” says Pletta. “But the day is going to come where that doesn’t really cut it anymore.”

“For all climbing gyms, it’s very important to represent climbing positively to the public,” says Barnett. “Properly teaching and maintaining good belay and climbing safety related practices are important, and I hope they become a bigger part of the climbing gym industry. People getting hurt at facilities can create a bad reputation in the climbing community and paint a bad picture of climbing to public who may see climbing as some death-defying sport. The less accidents outside and inside, the better climbing can be accurately portrayed. When things do go wrong, we need to be open about why, and educate the public on what occurred and what to do to prevent it from happening again.”

Pletta has developed a systematic approach for garnering PR at Stone Age—and it could be applied to any gym across the country. Comps have proven to be good vehicles for generating buzz at his gym—a comp is enticing to long-time climbers and people totally unfamiliar with the sport, and can easily be pitched to media outlets. “Every time we have a major competition, we put out a news release, and we try to get the news stations down here, we try to get written up in the newspaper,” says Pletta. “We’ve had mixed success with it, but we always talk about it and hope that we get the coverage.”

News outlets tend to be more interested in the youth and participatory aspects of comps, rather than the competitive angle. “Especially with our youth competitions, we find that’s something where even though it may not be climbing media, the local news channel wants to cover things with kids and sports,” Pletta says. He advises gym managers to do some of the journalistic work for the media, explaining, “I might send [the news stations] video that we took from a competition last year to show them what they might get if they come down here with a cameraman; or [I might] write a little bit of the article for them, or say, Hey, if you guys want to cover this in the newspaper, let me know and I’ll send you some pictures and I’ll send you the results tomorrow.” He adds, “Anything that you can do to make their job easier will help you get coverage in the news.”

Persistence is the key for successful gym PR. Furthermore, managers would benefit from reaching out to all possible promotional outlets—establishing contacts there, and getting to know who works on staff during the weekdays and the weekends at various media organizations. Pletta usually sends out a news release three to five days before a weekend comp, then calls the news outlets on Friday to double-check that they got the press release and see whether they’ll be able to send a camera to cover the event. He’ll typically follow-up again on Saturday morning—the day of the comp—to see if a news outlet is still planning to send a camera crew. “Make those phone calls and keep touching those bases,” he says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s really the only thing you can do.”