CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Bally works out reputation woes by committing to PR

Determined to overcome its poor image, Bally Total Fitness now employs an intense PR plan that has seen it form relationships with everyone from Howard Stern to The Wall Street Journal.

Determined to overcome its poor image, Bally Total Fitness now employs an intense PR plan that has seen it form relationships with everyone from Howard Stern to The Wall Street Journal.

The history of Bally Total Fitness is strewn with PR problems. Even today, it's not hard to find diatribes on various anti-Bally websites (some complaining of such tactics as charging membership fees after people had asked to cancel). Those image woes even extended into the fitness business itself. Kelli Calabrese, fitness expert with, tells of a friend who had problems getting a home loan because of credit-card problems caused by such an incident. "I've heard of a few people who've had bad experiences with Bally," she says. Jon Harris, Bally's VP of media development and communications, is more than aware of such stories. But since his arrival at the Chicago-based health-club chain in September 2001, he's been working hard to make people forget the old Bally, and instead see the new Bally as a premier source of information for health and fitness issues. "We're fighting the ghosts of the past," says Harris. Observers say that, so far, Bally's new PR push seems to be producing results. "They've made an 180-degree turn with respect to where they were six, seven, eight years ago," says John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. "I simply don't get complaints about Bally anymore. They've taken a company that was held in minimal regard, and now it's held in high regard." The credit for that, McCarthy and Harris agree, starts with Bally's senior management. Until six years ago, the chain was owned by the same company that runs Bally's casinos. "This company was seen as a step-child," Harris recalls. It faced bankruptcy several times before being spun off. Former CEO Lee Hillman, who retired in late 2002, and current CEO Paul Toback, who has been with Bally since 1997, worked hard to clean up unethical activities by Bally's clubs around the country, Harris says. Harris started by beefing up Bally's internal PR staff, and shifting its focus and the efforts of The MWW Group, its longtime agency, from putting out image fires to garnering positive press. But Harris is also using a tactic in his latest PR battle that he learned when he worked at soft-drink giant Pepsi: He's getting Bally associated with major celebrities like Howard Stern and popular national programs such as Today, and The Caroline Rhea Show. He's also bringing in superstars like Justin Timberlake and Pink to create an image for Bally as the "in" place for its target 18- to 34-year-old audience. In addition, Bally has created a team of local experts from its 420 clubs around the country to make appearances on local radio and TV shows, talking up fitness and fitness trends - not to mention polishing Bally's image in the process. Working media connections Harris was hired to get the new Bally story out. "A lot of what the press has written about Bally in the past was negative," Harris acknowledges. "We are a very different company now than we were 10 or 15 years ago." Soon after his arrival, Harris began working his media contacts to change that. "Jon has such great contacts," says Matt Messinger, a VP with MWW who works on the Bally account. "His high-level contacts are unmatched in the industry." Says Harris, "I felt it was critical for us to get out there immediately, and in a major way." Harris' contacts at Today helped garner Bally an eight-week series in which health-club employees served as judges for a weight-loss contest. It also led to a hook-up with The Caroline Rhea Show. Harris had done projects with The Rosie O'Donnell Show in his last stint at a failed dot-com, Rhea's show is the successor to O'Donnell's. Harris himself led a workout on Rhea's show, and even took some jibbing from the hostess, who dubbed him the "Bally Beefcake." Harris admits to losing 10 pounds and bulking up considerably since joining Bally. Another longtime Harris connection meant exposure for Bally on The Howard Stern Show. While in college, Harris interned at the New York radio station where Stern does his show. He got to know producer Gary Dell'Abate well enough to get Bally into the studio to run a program to help show staffers get in shape. "Whether you love him or you don't, he reaches 9 million people a day," Harris says of Stern. Harris hasn't ignored print media in his quest for positive publicity. When Bally announced that it was buying the Crunch chain of fitness clubs, Harris, only three weeks on the job at the time of the sale, gave an exclusive to The Wall Street Journal. More recently, Bally has been working on a fitness series with men's magazine FHM. "We continue to do everything we can to bring the brand front and center in a positive way," Harris says. Taking the local angle national When Harris arrived, Bally had some local-market spokespeople around the US. He has since expanded that program through a national search for new local talent among Bally's staff. Now, the company has a trained spokesperson in every major media center, as well as in many smaller markets. Bally keeps an eye out for PR opportunities and new fitness trends it can leverage into coverage. Last year, it started "Feeling Fat Friday," offering people free workouts on the day after Thanksgiving. That stunt attracted coverage from CNN and 48 local news programs. These days, Bally is talking about something called a person's resting metabolic rate. It dubbed March "Metabolic Month," inviting consumers to visit Bally's clubs on a two-week guest pass to get fitness evaluations that included consultations about how their metabolisms function. Add it all up, and Harris says he garnered the ad equivalent of $32 million in media coverage last year. Harris expects Bally to continue searching out new fitness trends and to address the US' growing concern about obesity. "There's a tremendous opportunity for us right now to really connect with all audiences," he says. "Competition right now is fierce; it's critical for us to stay ahead of the game." Lewis Lazare, a business columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, notes that Bally is still trying to create clear identities for the various brands of health clubs it owns. In addition to Bally and Crunch, it also runs Gorilla Sports, Pinnacle Fitness, Bally Sports Clubs, and Sports Clubs of Canada. "To me, they're still in transition," says Lazare. Calabrese at notes that clubs like Bally have traditionally run ads featuring hard-body types - ads that serve to intimidate and keep away people who need to exercise most. She's seen other health clubs try to broaden their appeal to a family audience. Harris says Bally is trying to do the same by working with the Presidential Fitness Council to get into schools, and by setting up classes for parents and their children, for example. It's also working with local authorities in Philadelphia and Brooklyn on citywide fitness programs, offering its clubs as weigh-in centers. It hopes to do something similar in Miami. "We're really trying to dig down deep locally, and get the Bally brand out there," says Harris. "We want to be the major player in health and fitness. In PR, you're only as good as the story you're telling, and I believe we've got a great story to tell." If Harris keeps telling it as effectively as he has, it may not be long before old negative images of Bally fade away. Says the IHRSA's McCarthy, "I think people now know that Bally is serious about fitness, wellness, and health." ----- PR contacts VP of media development and communications Jon Harris VP of investor relations Geoff Scheitlin Director of communications Sara Matheu Assistant manager Cheryl Pawlak Administrative assistant Karyn Petkus

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