Navigating a Clubland Crisis

Crime SceneOn July 18, a man who was denied entrance at downtown NYC hotspot Greenhouse was shot to death right after he walked away from the venue. While the shooting had absolutely nothing to do with the club — rumors are swirling that it was over a parking space — the media picked up the story instantly. Hours after the incident, misleading TV and radio reports spoke of a “murder at Greenhouse,” and the print media followed shortly after with lengthy pieces that also discussed other past legal woes for the club, such as the stabbing that occurred inside the venue a year ago.

The New York Post was one of the few outlets that correctly asserted that the club wasn’t involved in this shooting, but it’s no surprise that the press loves to draw out a good scandalous nightclub tale, however threadbare the connection may be. It’s amazing content for readers and viewers, particularly those outside of the industry who believe — occasionally rightfully so — that nightclubs are universal incubators for transgressions, tawdry affairs and felonies. The proper handling of a nightlife crisis, such as a murder, has become an increasingly paramount piece of the public relations puzzle for operators and owners. Putting forth the right message, in proper time, form and content, can mean the difference between successfully staying open and an angry community board deeming your venue unsafe and petitioning for your closure.

Controlling the spin is something Ron Berkowitz, president of NYC-based Berk Communications, understands well. His clients include TAO restaurant and nightclub in Midtown, Brother Jimmy’s, Stanton Social and Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club, which was prominently featured in the news last December after a sizable brawl in the alley behind the club. Berkowitz shares his top dos and don’ts for handling a club crisis; these are steps that venue owners and management and public relations personnel can take to head off damaging reports.

Do: “Get the full, true story from the management team. You need to understand what happened before you can act. Things get out of control very quickly, with blogs and cell phone cameras, and inaccurate stories and rumors move like wildfire. You have to try to contain the story if you can, but in the case of a shooting or a fight, it’s very hard. Make sure you have the accurate, concrete facts before issuing any statement.”

Do: “Cooperate with the police if it’s a legal matter. The last thing you want is the police telling the media that your club is not working with them. The public usually sides with the law, and when you’re not on that team, it raises serious doubt in their minds. Being standoffish with the police only complicates everything. So turn over surveillance footage, give them honest statements, whatever you can to show you’re helping the investigation.”

Do: “Try to avoid these circumstances at all. Many negative incidents nightclubs face can be handled before they go out to the public — before it hits lawsuit time or the court system. If you have a person who’s threatening to leak a negative story — whether it’s true or not — you have to try and nip it right there. If they do reach the press, it doesn’t matter what actually happened at that point. Media are going to cover the story if they know the place. And press won’t always call you for comment. They’ll run whatever they can get. With the Internet, a bad piece of press never truly disappears either. It’ll always be out there.”

Don’t: “Ever speak to the press or anyone else before speaking to the lawyer [whether you are the venue owner/manager or the publicist]. There’s many things you can say out of innocence that will spin it in the wrong direction. There’s a reason your lawyer tells you to be quiet. So be sure to listen to him if they tell you to simply issue a ‘no comment.’”

Don’t: “Lie about anything. If it’s a criminal investigation, you don’t want the police coming back at you later for impeding it. And the public won’t trust you after that. The truth always comes out, so you will get caught if you lie.”

Don’t: “Freak out and panic. That’s the sign of where you can look very vulnerable. Keep everyone calm, especially the client, while you’re collecting all the right information before you act. You’ll get through the storm just fine if you’re collected and rational.”

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