Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cinemark's Box Office PR Fail

Well, that didn't take long. I wrote about the Year Ahead in Crisis Comms less than a week ago and already one of the four things I predicted has, sadly, come to pass.

Cinemark USA, the theater chain that owned the movie theater in Aurora, CO, where 12 people were killed and dozens wounded by a gunman last summer, sent invitations to victim's families inviting "them and a guest" to a remembrance and a movie. The invitations arrived two days after Christmas according to PR Newser and other reports.

I wasn't able to find the full text of the Cinemark letter to families, but family members responded with a letter, which The Denver Post reprinted.
"This disgusting offer that you’d “like to invite you and a guest to a special evening of remembrance on Thursday, January 17 at 5 PM” followed by the showing of a movie and then telling us to be sure “to reserve our tickets” is wholly offensive to the memory of our loved ones." -Letter to Cinemark from families of victims
This falls into the "Lack of Compassion" category from my Year Ahead post. The community has been supportive of reopening the theater and it is appropriate to let the families know that the reopening is near. , but the language in quotes below reads like it came from the promotions department.  This isn't the first insensitive letter Cinemark has written about the disaster. The CEO wrote a letter to Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan in September about plans to reopen the theater.
“We pledge to reconfigure the space and make the theater better than ever." -Tim Werner, Cinemark USA CEO (Aurora Sentinel)
The problem with the theater wasn't that it was a substandard place to watch movies, but that 12 people were murdered while watching a movie there. "Better than ever," seems like one of those throwaway phrases from a CEO who doesn't really have his finger on the pulse of the story engulfing his own company.

Cinemark is in a very tough spot. The crisis happened on their property, but it wasn't caused by the company or its employees. Aurora's mayor asked the company to reopen the theater. Reopening is the right thing to do. But, how they are communicating is not only amateurish, it's adding to people's suffering. Stop it.

The learning point for communicators is this: People impacted the most get to decide when the crisis is over, not the company.  Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded in Theater 9 of Cinemark's Century 16 multiplex in Aurora.

No amount of remodeling or renaming will ever change that. 

Bill Salvin



21 comments:

  1. You write that "The crisis happened on their property, but it wasn't caused by the company or its employees." I disagree vehemently. The murders were entirely due to the theatre's failure to secure its premises adequately. The complex apparently had armed security guards--who responded to the shooting--but management utterly failed to secure exits against re-entry, apparently had no alarms at exits to summon security during the movie, and had no roving security force to patrol the exterior perimeter. Cinemark could easily have prevented the massacre. It just didn't want to spend the extra money on the necessary security measures--primarily extra staff--that would have been required to make the theatre safe from the kind of amateurish planning that kids have used for decades to sneak in for free movie.

    From what I've heard, Cinemark's biggest PR fail in this reopening isn't the invitation, but, rather, that it was the first communication some (perhaps all) of the victims and surviving families had ever received from the corporation. All those people die and are wounded in a Cinemark theatre--and the corporation apparently never once sent them a personal letter of condolences from the CEO? Unbelievable!

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    1. Not sure how you drew the conclusion that Cinemark could have prevented this unless they expect a war zone to break out every night.

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  2. Cinemark has invited the victims and surviving family members to a "remembrance and a movie."

    I hope the chain isn't planning to screen "The Dark Knight Rises" so that the wounded can finally see how it ended.

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  3. Steven, thanks for reading and for taking the time to weigh in. I'll respond to both your comments. Second one first. Love the snark. I had the same thought. What movie would be appropriate in this case?

    As for your first one, I disagree that it is "entirely due to the theater's failure..." That view absolves the role of young man with the gun. Could the theater chain have done more from a security standpoint? Certainly. However, it wasn't amateurish kids intent on sneaking into a movie that were the problem here. And what's to say that the young man, intent on violence wouldn't have murdered the roving security patrol that came to investigate an open exit door?

    I do agree that this isn't Cinemark's first PR fail in this tragedy. To not have reached out to those families is unconscionable. There is never any liability in compassion.

    Thanks again for reading.

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  4. Anneliz Hannan (via LinkedIn)January 7, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    Your learning point for communication " People impacted the most get to decide when the crisis is over, not the company" is perfection in this oh so imperfect state.

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  5. Thank you, Anneliz. I appreciate your comment and that you took the time to read the post. Happy New Year!

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  6. I think there are too many lawyers and not enough humans involved in this which is probably why this is the first contact the families had received. The theater chain is being sued and their lawyers have probably have said saying anything could be considered an admission of guilt. (not saying that their actions are right but I get where they are coming from.)
    The letter could have been written better. It was written by someone who didn't consider all of the angles.

    As far as more security, what movie theater has that much security? None of them do. Yes, the exits should have had alarms but armed guards securing the perimeter?

    Re-opening the theater is not saying the crisis is over but it is the move that community wanted.

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  7. I just got an email about a contest to win a free trip to Monte Carlo from Cinemark. To promote a movie about a woman who lost her legs. There is another example about how Cinemark is tone deaf when it comes to PR and promotions.

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    1. The hits just keep on coming for them, don't they?

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    2. Cinemark needs to get a new PR dept, a CEO that has some sense about things other than $ and the bottom line, and a whole management team that gets what's happening to the company.

      At the rate it's going, it will die shortly, surrounded by people saying good riddance to an uncaring company.

      Lawyers or no, a note saying that the company was dismayed and terribly saddened for the deaths of family members, doesn't get them in legal trouble. It should have been the first thing off the CEO's desk the next day.

      This company isn't just in PR trouble, it's in huge image trouble which will lead to financial ruin if it continues. People won't put up with this kind of insensitivity and ineptitude long.

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  8. Thanks for reading, Be Gracious. I agree with your comment and I appreciate you taking the time to read the post and write your thoughts here. I get that lawyers have to be involved, but as I've said here and in other forums, there is never any liability in compassion. Also, if the lawyers they have suck so much that they can't explain a CEOs expression of sympathy to the jury then maybe they need better lawyers.

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  9. Derek Farley (via LinkedIn)January 9, 2013 at 8:05 AM

    Article well done; if I was Cinemark, I would make you my PR person and pay you very well. This is the type of story I reference when I hear that "anyone can do PR." It's not common sense, rather uncommon sense that makes PR practitioners shine. However, in this case, I think an ounce of common sense would have worked in this case.

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  10. Thanks, Derek. The more I work in this business the more I find that "common sense" is not that common. I really think this is a case of not having the right people working on this. The company is a movie chain, so "let's invite people to see a movie." They probably do those sorts of things all the time for various people or events. They are responding in a normal way to an abnormal event. The victim's families deserved better.

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    1. That's my thought, Bill. They pulled the wrong tool out of the drawer for these communications (i.e., the tool who writes their promotional news releases to fill seats with teens and young adults) and they probably don't have the skill set on staff to do anything else.

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  11. My rule of thumb is this: respond only after considering how you would feel if the situation had happened to you, a loved one, or a friend. If your response still feels right, then proceed. If it doesn't, listen to your conscience, start over and do it right. Compassion goes such a very long way.

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    1. I like what you say Katherine and completely agree.

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  12. Compassion is the key, Katherine. You are exactly right on that. I wish I could figure out when being kind became a weakness. There really is no greater show of strength. Thanks for reading.

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  13. Anna Bessonova (via LinkedIn)January 11, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    I agree with the above comments - a very interesting read and a strikingly poor judgement on behalf of Cinemark. Makes me wonder: who of the employees *actually* thought that sending a message like this was a good idea? Sounds like a cheezy advertising move than a well-thoughtout PR communication.

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  14. Thank you for your thoughts Anna. I appreciate you reading. It does make you wonder, doesn't it? There had to be a meeting where someone suggested this for the first time. Then everyone in the room had to agree that it was a good idea. Or, maybe, just the least bad idea.

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  15. BIll, this has been a very interesting discussion. Your most recent comment goes along with something I wrote recently on the state of public relations, currently being batted about on a LinkedIn group discussion. I would love to have you weigh in, if you are part of this group: http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=82242&type=member&item=201512335&qid=4f6d3a1f-5751-40fd-b6b7-ea2eb87ddb5e&trk=group_most_popular-mc-rr-ttl&goback=%2Egmp_82242

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  16. Chris Syme (via LinkedIn)January 12, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    I'm going to make an assumption, so please forgive me. According to Cinemark's corporate directory, they have five vice presidents related to marketing functions (branding, online, etc.), at least one legal counsel, and one senior strategy person in marketing. My guess is that they handled this in-house. My observation is that when companies do this in the event of a tragedy or major crisis, they usually misstep. I'm almost hoping they didn't bring anyone in from the outside because if they did, this debacle would be a total fail. You need a second pair of eyes in a crisis of this magnitude, no matter what your in-house expertise is. Outsiders will see blind spots.

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