7 Lessons Every Marketer Can Learn From The CrossFit Instagram Crisis

7 Lessons Every Marketer Can Learn from the CrossFit Instagram CrisisHere’s a question for PR and marketing pros: Which was the most significant corporate communications crisis recently? Hard to select just one, eh? Amidst the hurricane of PR catastrophes this past year – from H & M’s racist “Biggest Monkey in the Jungle” debacle, Papa John’s CEO attacking the NFL and Uber’s parade of scandals to United Airlines’ nose-breaking, tooth-shattering attack on a passenger, the Oscar “Best Picture is...Oops!” and Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter’’ TV ad bungle with Kendall Jenner – it would be easy to miss one of the smaller yet most portentous PR crisis of this year: The CrossFit Gym Member-Shaming Instagram Fail.

To sum up: the owner of a CrossFit Gym in North Carolina posted sexualized images of his female customersbodies on Instagram this past January, adding degrading captions and emojis ridiculing their body parts. The gym owner insisted these acts were “light hearted and fun” and defended his posts on radio as “we were having fun...we were...talking about booties that day.” But a former CrossFit gym member responded: “When you show women in vulnerable positions like that and sexualize it with hashtags and inappropriate emoji, you’re taking a strong athlete and demeaning her to a piece of meat.” 


When the inevitable social media backlash erupted, the CrossFit gym owner compounded the crisis by posting a profanity-laden response that called criticism by outraged women “bullshit,” “delusional and ignorant” and “feeble minded garbage.” The response against his witless defense was swift (1-star ratings flooded the gym’s Facebook page) and USA Today and TV stations ravaged the CrossFit brand (a typical headline in a UK newspaper: “Booty Shame: CrossFit trainer blasted for sharing snaps of female clients bent over in the gym”).

To explore what your company can learn from the CrossFit crisis, I checked in with Paul Omodt, a former VP of Crisis and Critical Issues with the PR agency Padilla and ex-director of communications for the Air Line Pilots Association, who now operates his own consulting firm, Omodt & Associates Critical Communications.


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The CrossFit owner initially responded to member complaints about his sexist images by sending a ‘private’ message dismissing the victim from his gym (“you are no longer welcome on the property or as a member”) and implying that his critic was “degenerate.” Needless to say, that message was shared widely across Facebook.

The first rule for any online crisis? Take the complaint and your response offline, where your company can resolve the issue in a way that can’t be shared with 50 million others. One defender of the gym owner protested: "it was never intended to be posted to Facebook or go ‘viral.’" No matter what the intention, recognize that every rude Tweet or callous Facebook post from a misguided employee or manager is now as public as a news release fired out globally.





Can a restaurant’s franchisee post photos of overweight customers devouring five burgers with fries? What about a local gym owner posting photos of members stretching upside down in their black spandex? Every corporation that has multiple locations – franchised or company-owned (and CrossFit has over 13,000 affiliates worldwide) must have a social media policy that guides remote employees and managers in what’s acceptable to share online.

“For organizations that are franchised, the franchisor has to walk a tight rope between protecting their brand and not stepping on the legal toes of their franchisees who are not their employee,” acknowledges Omodt. “So, it can be a balancing act when the franchisee has to live up to social media standards, but there are limits as to what they can be told or not told to do and say by headquarters.” (Note: CrossFit gyms are termed affiliates rather than franchises). “Like most organizations, CrossFit wants an organic social media presence that’s relatable and authentic to its audiences,” says Omodt. “In this case, CrossFit failed on so many levels. There was the general tone-deafness of the original posts, the owner’s response, and then the lack of a response from the CrossFit organization as a whole.”


In a perfect world, multi-location businesses would empower their regional affiliates to post social content that authentically reflects their local communities. When local social content is pushed out from a national headquarters, it too often feels distant, stiff and divorced from each market’s individuality. But as CrossFit discovered, allowing every affiliate to manage its own social channels without oversight puts your company’s brand reputation in the capricious hands of people who may have a radically different idea of what’s appropriate to post online.


Most marketers use social listening tools such as Sysomos and Meltwater to monitor what consumers say about their brand on social media. But how many are also monitoring what their own employees, franchisees, and managers are posting?

No matter how eloquent your social media rulebook is, every multi-location retailer or franchisor should have tools in place so you can immediately learn of an errant local manager’s racist or sexist social posts. Sure, you can trust your local managers to use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter responsibly. But as the Russian proverb (and later, Ronald Reagan) advised: Doveryai, no proveryai (“Trust, But Verify”).


It’s unclear what protocol Washington, D.C.-based CrossFit has in place to obtain photo release permission from its affiliates’ members, and if those releases give affiliates license to use members’ images in whatever way they wish – satirical, promotional or informational.

News media reported that some CrossFit members in North Carolina had signed photo releases – but it appeared that the owner had little idea what the parameters of proper use of those images should be. In this age of data breaches and cyber-hacking, violating a customer’s expectation of privacy is a transgression that’s increasingly unforgivable. When in doubt, place the privacy of your customers first.



“Crisis situations often reveal character – and CrossFit’s character was sorely lacking here in the owner’s cringe-worthy reply to these social media posts,” adds Omodt. “The owner’s clear lack of understanding was evident in his response – to attack the victims. Once he attacked them, it took him a while to understand the gravity of his mistake – and the CrossFit organization appears likewise slow to the draw.”

In contrast, consider how another corporation demonstrated its values during a crisis that also occurred in North Carolina – only in this case, Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle responded to a local pizza outlet’s unsanitary YouTube prank (a stomach-churning video viewed more than 1,000,000 times) by abjectly apologizing, temporarily shutting down that Domino’s location, firing the employees involved and establishing a Twitter account to respond to the incident. “There is nothing more sacred to us than our customerstrust,” concludes Doyle in Domino’s candid video.

“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesperson to the New York Times. The company even admitted that they didn’t act fast enough and then, “what we missed” the spokesperson confessed, “was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations.”

Domino’s had the courage to do the right thing during the crisis, protecting its brand by asserting its national values in the face of a local scandal. The alternative to that lightning-fast candor? The certainty that your customers will turn to Yelp, Facebook and Twitter to ravage your brand on the web, with social posts that can live online as brand-mangling zombies for years.


The North Carolina CrossFit owner delivered a belated ‘apology’ for his posts, insisting they were taken “out of context” so as to cause a “misunderstanding.” Babbled the owner on radio: “I can’t control the way this is being portrayed, and I’m regretful for it. I feel horrible that people would feel that I would look at a woman that way and do something that would be purposefully demeaning of her.” His responses appeared to violate every rule of how to apologize during a crisis: don’t focus on your own hurt feelings (it’s about your victims, not about you), don’t hide behind how some people “misunderstood” your heinous actions (that’s just blaming the victim from a different angle) and make your first apology the one big apology. You’ll recall that the series of “apologies” made by CEO Oscar Munoz of United Airlines when a physician was dragged off a plane in Chicago began with Munoz blaming the injured passenger. He was “disruptive and belligerent” was the initial PR response. A threatened customer boycott forced the CEO to accept blame for the mishandling of the incident (“no one should ever be mistreated this way”) and ultimately acknowledge United’s responsibility for the mistake.


From a brand reputation standpoint, assume that the public doesn’t understand the difference between a local affiliate and his or her multimillion-dollar franchisor or parent company. In this way, for example, every Burger King in America represents the mission of the Burger King corporate brand. If your company’s local affiliate retweeted a white supremacist video clip tonight, are you ready to take action?


We could not find a corporate response to the sexist posts of the North Carolina affiliate on the CrossFit corporate website and media accounts are devoid of any official response from CrossFit’s parent company. But it’s clear that its local manager violated the values that the CrossFit Foundation embraces: “improving health and fitness through education, research, philanthropy and advocacy.” Why the disconnect? Says Omodt: “CrossFit should have immediately stepped in and asserted themselves here, saying what its values are. When working with clients, I always include – on page one of their crisis communications plan – their organization’s stated mission, vision and values. My clients can’t pass onto the rest of the plan without first reviewing who they say they are and how they say they will act. Organizations that live their mission, vision and values always come out of a crisis situation better than those who say or do nothing.”

So how did CrossFit do in this crisis? “In the end, CrossFit gets an ‘F’ here,” concludes Omodt. “There is no part of the CrossFit brand that says, we are going to sexualize your look without your knowledge, which was clearly done here. It didn’t live up to its brand." Note: MaccaPR reached out to CrossFit via their media/news email address, but have not received a response.

A final lesson for our MaccaPR blog readers? Don’t let CrossFit’s situation dissuade you from empowering your regional managers, owners, employees or franchisees to localize social media content for their unique markets. But, at the same time, don’t forget that your company is the ultimate steward of your brand, which puts the responsibility on you to set clear standards for local social media posts – which, we all pray, will never involve the words “hump day” and “dayum” being superimposed over your customersbodies.

How would you have handled the CrossFit gym crisis differently? Let us know in the comments below. For more insights from PR industry leaders, subscribe today to our MaccaPR Blog here

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Corporate Communications, PR Perspectives

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