Massage Envy is trying to repair its sullied reputation after a bombshell report.
Buzzfeed broke the story, in which it reported a pattern of abuse and assault against customers at Massage Envy spas nationwide, without proper legal follow-up.
Now the chain is working to counter the allegations that complaints went ignored at the local and national levels.
Massage Envy, the first and by far the largest chain of massage franchises in the country, is a billion-dollar business that promises trustworthy services at an affordable price. But BuzzFeed News found that more than 180 people have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees, and the national company. Like Susan Ingram, many say their claims were mishandled or ignored by employees and owners of individual Massage Envy spas, and by the national company itself.
The franchise chain has tried to find legal cover behind its business model, saying it doesn’t directly supervise franchisees. However, that messaging has had poor PR results as Buzzfeed’s report suggests that the absence of guidance looks more like an abdication of leadership.
Although experiences can vary widely from spa to spa, some former franchise owners and employees from California to Maryland said they didn’t feel capable of handling such cases themselves.
“Honestly, they don’t really prepare you for that serious of a scenario,” said Kendra Simone, who oversaw more than a dozen Massage Envy spas as an operations director from 2010 to 2016. Employees learned how to ensure incidents didn’t “escalate” into negative publicity, she said, but not how to investigate potential criminal behavior.
The current wave of abuse revelations
Some wonder whether the massage industry as a whole has failed to address such concerns, noting it would align with the pattern of growing revelations about sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior in U.S. culture following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.
[FREE GUIDE: 3 helpful tips for your crisis comms prep]
Investigation into any major massage chain in the US reveals a number of sexual assault claims.
Customers at Massage Heights — a company with more than 100 spas nationwide — have filed at least 10 lawsuits and complaints after alleged sexual assaults. Massage LuXe, with more than 50 locations, also has a number of lawsuits filed against it. Hand and Stone, another massage chain with more than 100 locations, has similarly been accused in a number of cases.
Some people argue that the franchises’ business model could be contributing to the prevalence of assaults.
Massage Envy officials had several chances to respond to the Buzzfeed report, including an opportunity before the article was released.
Massage Envy told BuzzFeed News that it would not be “appropriate to respond point-by-point” to questions “because of pending litigation” and the confidential documents involved. But overall, Melanie Hansen, general counsel of Massage Envy Franchising, said the company has worked hard to create the industry’s “most stringent, rigorous policies” for hiring, screening, and training therapists. “We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it,” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
They reevaluated that initial, guarded statement Monday, after the report was published.
Massage Envy in a statement Monday said the complaints documented by BuzzFeed News spanned a period of more than 15 years and said each account was heartbreaking.
“But, we believe that even one incident is too many, so we are constantly listening, learning, and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues,” the company said.
Jennifer Donahoe, a PR supervisor at Maryland communications firm Planit, said the massage chain could have handled the report better.
“The goal [in] any crisis is to maintain the trust of your stakeholders,” she said. “While Massage Envy did respond saying the situation is ‘heartbreaking’ and that ‘even one incident is too many,’ the company also pointed out that the situations ‘occurred over 15 years among 125 million massages.’ Minimizing very serious allegations does not show care.”
Donahoe also takes issue with the slow response from Massage Envy.
“Whoever is the first to define a crisis, and a company’s motives and actions, establishes the narrative around the crisis,” she says. “Given that Buzzfeed reached out to Massage Envy before the story was published for comment, the company had the opportunity to maintain first-mover advantage by releasing the news before Buzzfeed.”
That failing, she said, would prove costly.
“Doing so would have allowed Massage Envy to define the situation, the company’s values, and the actions they’re taking to address the issue,” she concluded. “Instead, Buzzfeed defined the company as a ‘billion-dollar company’ placing a priority of their brand over the health and safety of their customers.”
Social media backlash
Customers on Twitter announced they wouldn’t be returning to the spa chain.
Incredible reporting by @BuzzFeedNews on horrific sexual abuses reported by hundreds of clients. Never going to a @MassageEnvy again, company should be held liable for their complicity and sued into the ground. https://t.co/UElNQ52Npd
— rabia chaudry (@rabiasquared) November 27, 2017
Some users said the chain also fails to support employees who are assaulted by customers during a massage:
A friend who works at Massage Envy said it also works other way too, when clients touch the female masseuses or expose themselves, the company just books them with a new masseuse next visit, they never ban a client and instead fire masseuses who complain. Police are never called.
— Cocacolakid (@Cocacolakid) November 26, 2017
Others suggested it’s old news:
Seriously. Do not go to Massage Envy. I wish this article was surprising… https://t.co/mxMHdvm3V9
— Colleen Sonnentag (@colleen1098) November 26, 2017
Among the condemnation, some insisted that the business should suffer consequences:
— David M. Perry (@Lollardfish) November 26, 2017
How would you start to repair Massage Envy’s reputation, PR Daily readers?