After the Shooting: A Tale of Two Recoveries

 
 

aurora-shooting

If there was ever any question, 2012 was the year that proved, once and for all, that “it can’t happen here” is a myth no organization can afford to trust. During an opening-night showing of the latest Batman film at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, 12 people were killed and 58 injured by a heavily armed and armored gunman. In Brookfield, Wisconsin, three people were killed and four injured at Azana spa. In Oak Creek, Wisconsin, six people were killed and three injured at a Sikh temple shortly before services were set to begin. At a California university, seven people were killed and three injured by a gunman, reportedly a former nursing student. In Seattle, five people were killed and one injured during a shooting spree that began in an independent coffee shop. At a Minnesota sign-making company, six people were killed and three injured by a former employee. And at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut, 27 people were killed and two injured, most of them young children.

As disasters go, mass shootings fill a unique niche and pose unique challenges. No place of education, refuge, entertainment, worship, employment or relaxation is immune. Unlike fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, chemical releases or terrorism, they rarely result in substantial property damage. The shooting event itself usually lasts only minutes, and once the crime scene has been secured and investigated, there is usually no physical reason that a business could not immediately reopen its doors. There are often other, very real reasons it does not, however.

With the current cultural focus on shootings and gun control, it is now almost certain that any act of gun violence perpetrated in a public place with multiple victims will receive national (and sometimes international) media attention. As headlines grow and become permanent on the internet, what once may have been a personal tragedy for those close to the victims has become a very real threat to the future of an affected company or organization. For a retail or service business that relies on public foot traffic, an internet search profile that turns up references to a mass shooting rather than the company’s website could mean the end of the business itself.

Shootings at the Spa and Cinema

Two shootings illustrate an important concept of post-disaster recovery: no two disasters—and no two recoveries—are the same. Both the Brookfield spa and the Aurora movie theater tragedies involved a gunman killing multiple victims on the premises. Both received national media attention.

The Azana spa reopened after six weeks. The entire Aurora multiplex remained closed for six months, however. While downtime for any business can pose a tremendous financial burden, depending on insurance coverage, in most cases the more significant risk from being closed for any length of time is that once-loyal customers will take their business elsewhere. It is largely for this reason that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that 75% of companies without well-conceived and tested business continuity plans will go out of business within three years of being affected by a major disaster.

The reopening of the Azana Salon and Spa received uniformly positive and hopeful coverage from the local media. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for example, highlighted the successful fundraisers that had been held for the victims of the shooting, the resilience of the business, the determination of its owner and the salon’s tasteful memorial to the victims. Words used or quoted in the story describing the spa’s reopening include: “newly remodeled and redecorated,” “warm and homey” and “gorgeous.” The local NBC affiliate’s coverage was titled “Healing at the Spa” and noted that the salon was reportedly “nearly fully booked” and “even welcomed some new customers.”

Conversely, the Aurora movie theater reopened to some controversy. The opening received national media coverage that typically mentioned a brief memorial ceremony, but also described the anger felt by some of the victims and their families against the theater’s owner. The New York Times described the “road to reopening” as “painful and divisive,” noting that “some families touched by the massacre thought it was too soon, or simply insensitive, to once again screen shoot-’em-up blockbusters and sell expensive snacks in a building where their loved ones had been killed.” USA Today’s coverage featured multiple family members of victims who expressed their displeasure with the theater’s actions since the shooting. “There’s been no condolence letter, no reaching out, no apologies, then…we get this invitation to attend a reopening of a killing field,” said one grieving father. Both papers mentioned that several lawsuits had been filed against Cinemark Holdings (the owner of the theater), alleging negligence that contributed to the shooting’s terrible consequences.

Community and Employee Outreach Strategies

The owners of these two affected companies followed starkly different strategies in the aftermath of their respective tragedies, especially in terms of their community relations efforts. Tim Warner, president and CEO of Cinemark, answered a few questions on camera and traveled to Aurora shortly after the shooting, reportedly to provide support to the victims and community. However, apart from speaking at the theater reopening ceremony six months later, Warner provided very few other public statements or interactions with the media or those personally affected by the shooting. This reported lack of communication was a prime complaint of several victims’ family members.

According to the New York Times, one victim’s parent reported that Cinemark did not send her any direct communications until she received an invitation in the mail to attend the theater reopening. Another parent reported to USA Today that he had tried to reach out to Cinemark himself, but that “they’ve shown no interest in speaking to any of us—no compassion for the families who lost someone. They’ve been very, very insensitive.” Multiple news outlets also indicated in their coverage that they had reached out to Cinemark for interviews and comments on their reporting with no response. (Messages sent to Cinemark for this article were not returned.)

Tami Gemmell, owner of the Azana Salon and Spa, while being selective and very intentional about the times and places of her public statements and interviews, maintained a strong presence in the media and the community. The shooting at the Azana Spa occurred during the late morning of October 21, 2012. Within hours, the official Facebook profile for the spa issued the following message: “ATTENTION AZANA EMPLOYEES please do not speak to the media, it is so important that things get figured out and settled first. THANK YOU so much to everyone for your thoughts and especially your prayers. Please continue to pray for all of those involved.” From the very first day, Gemmell recognized the importance of achieving and maintaining control over the spa’s message. She utilized social media to communicate with employees, customers, and the broader community throughout the post-disaster period.

Two days after the shooting, Gemmell organized a private meeting with her employees to maintain direct communication with them, one of the most often-overlooked components of crisis communications and disaster planning and response. Without its key employees, a business can fail just as easily as if it loses its key customers; Gemmell would later announce that she paid her employees throughout the period the spa was closed, contributing to the eventual result that the vast majority of her employees returned when the spa reopened. After the employee meeting, she issued a brief statement mourning the loss of the women who were killed in the shooting while refusing to take questions from the press, an action that again helped her maintain control over the media’s coverage. That same day, Gemmell established the Azana Victims Fund at a local bank and once again communicated this information to the public via the spa’s Facebook page.

Divergent Strategies

At this point in the post-disaster recovery, the two companies’ strategies diverged even further. Cinemark’s Warner was quick in his few initial comments to state that “this is just an isolated, deranged gunman” and that “I do feel this was an isolated incident.” This was a theme he would re-emphasize during his remarks at the theater’s reopening, when he called the shooting “a single terrible act of random, unpredictable violence.”

As opposed to the Cinemark strategy of attempting to dismiss the Aurora shooting as an unforeseeable event, Gemmell chose to publicly link the Azana Spa shooting to the broader social issue of domestic violence. (It was public knowledge shortly after the shooting that the gunman was the husband of one of the victims and had recently been served with a restraining order after slashing his wife’s tires.) Within less than a week of the attack, Gemmell announced the formation of a purple-ribbon fundraising effort in conjunction with the national “Cut It Out” campaign against domestic violence in the salon industry. The spa would later be featured in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine for its efforts in this campaign, again achieving positive national media attention.

Whereas the Azana Spa tragedy became a rallying cry for a supportive local community and a fixture in a national movement, the owner of the Aurora theater attempted to turn the shooting into something to forget. Cinemark remodeled and renamed the theater, choosing not to establish any kind of permanent memorial in the process. While the Azana Spa was also remodeled, in the place of one of the victims’ former workstations there is now a table with three flowers and a candle in memory of the employees who lost their lives. This visual dedication serves as a daily reminder of the tragedy to employees as well as customers, but it also connects those visiting the spa to a larger cause.

Only time will tell how each of these post-disaster strategies will affect each respective business over the long term. In the meantime, it is important to consider why each business took the actions it did. Although at first glance, one might think that the larger scale of the Aurora movie theater shooting would require a much more expansive community relations effort than the Azana Spa shooting, this is not automatically the case.

Cinemark is reportedly the third-largest movie theater chain in the United States, with nearly 300 theaters domestically as well as a major international presence. Although the shooting at its Aurora theater was a tragedy, it was not likely to pose a significant risk to Cinemark as a whole; even if that particular theater never reopened, Cinemark’s stability and financial strength would not have been affected. It is likely that in the view of company management at the time, the greatest perceived risk to the company was the set of lawsuits from victims and their family members stemming from the event. This could explain the company’s near-complete silence in the weeks and months following the shooting.

At the other extreme, Azana Salon and Spa is a single-location company based largely on maintaining relationships with a steady clientele. The spa’s stated goal is to provide “pure luxury,” offering services such as a “relaxation room designed to awaken the senses while renewing the spirit,” as well as “massage therapy rooms…designed to melt your troubles away and leave you refreshed and rejuvenated.”

In the immediate aftermath of a shooting that left three women (plus the gunman) dead on the premises, as well as four others injured, it was hard to imagine that the spa’s customers would ever return to the site of such horror for the purposes of relaxation. By controlling the message and managing the media, linking the tragedy to a broader social issue and making it into a cause for the community, and keeping the majority of her employees, Gemmell’s excellent management appears to have achieved something that initially appeared impossible: making her business even stronger in the aftermath of a true disaster.

More and more businesses and other organizations are coming to realize that “risk management” is simply management—we can no longer afford to differentiate between the two concepts. In that perspective, disaster planning and recovery are not isolated functions, but must instead be core features of strategic decision-making at the highest levels of a successful organization. In the post-disaster recovery stage, management must base its actions on an informed understanding of the unique nature of the disaster itself, as well as the unique position of the organization within that disaster context.

 

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About the Author

Will Kramer, CSP, CPCU, ARM-E, ARM-P, is a consultant with Integrated Risk Solutions in Wisconsin, a firm specializing in risk reduction.

 
 

19 Comments

  • Spot on–very well put. You have clearly cited the challenge to get business management groups to recognize and embrace the fact that disaster planning and recovery are not outside the core concerns. Planning efforts and investments are scalable for large and small businesses.

     
    • willkramer

      Thanks Dave – sometimes I wonder if those hoping to interest business owners in disaster planning should just pitch the idea as resiliency and efficiency improvement or something similar. There are tremendous benefits a business can achieve in their day-to-day operations through the contemplation of extreme events – the better results in a crisis or disaster are really just a fringe benefit.
      http://www.linkedin.com/in/willkramer/

       
  • Ilana

    Well written!

     
  • Thomas Waller

    Outstanding use of contrast to make a point.

     
    • Thanks Thomas! I was unfortunately unable to reach Cinemark for comment on the story, but I have gotten to know Ms. Gemmell somewhat Business leaders who have led their companies through crisis events are such a wealth of knowledge for our community as a whole – it would be invaluable to catalog more of their experiences and insights. The contrasts and similarities we could observe would really open some eyes.
      http://www.linkedin.com/in/willkramer/

       
  • As a crisis management consultant for 25 years, I was on Colorado NPR (public radio) to comment on the reopening of the Aurora Theater. We did not serve as consultants to Cinemark. I wish we had. The concepts of caring and re-establishing what is called a "new normal" was on target in this article. I handled a similar tale of 2 shootings following the Mark Barton shootings (Atlanta) in 2 separate day trading organizations. In one (Altech), we used a caring response and reopened within 48 hours. The other used free city workers to provide alleged counseling, had a non-visible management response, and stayed closed for weeks. They never were able to reopen. Excellent article. You would make an excellent crisis consultant, Will, in your next career!!

     
    • Bruce,

      Thanks for the feedback and commentary – as it happens, I was just consulting Blindsided today! In my former role as a Congressional investigator, I had the opportunity to see first-hand how unprepared even leading corporate executives are for events that are outside of their comfort zone. Despite (or perhaps because of) their increased resources, large organizations often seem to have a harder time adapting and reacting. Fascinating RE: the Mark Barton shootings; I would love to pick your brain sometime!
      http://www.linkedin.com/in/willkramer/

       
  • Karen

    Great article. It really exemplifies the different ways businesses handle a disaster.

     
  • Sandy

    Excellent article, Will. Thought provoking and well written and good business sense regarding recovery but most importantly recovery and healing individually and in community.

     
  • I echo the previous comments and share Bruce's compliments that you would be well-equipped as a crisis communication consultant! As a former law enforcement officer and continuity consultant, I have been requested to provide guidance on workplace violence. While my prevention recommendations are sometimes considered controversial, my recommendations follow Azana's strategy very closely and I find them to be welcomed.

    I think you wrote an outstanding article and would hope it becomes widely read outside the risk management community. There are a number of important concepts here that can drive the "moral compass" of any organization. Bravo!

     
    • Thank you for your thoughts Kevin! Unfortunately, there is a tremendous need for crisis consultants these days, and I can only imagine that the need will increase in the future. You bring up an important point about the "moral compass"; "doing the right thing" by her employees, customers, and the community was the driving force behind every decision Ms. Gemmell made in the aftermath of the shooting.

       
  • Tyler

    Very well written.

     
  • I wonder if there is a direct relationship between the decrease in insane asylums and increased horrid crime in America…Thank you for the well written article – great info and view point.

     
  • John King

    Will, well put. It's so important that strategic planning include contingencies for the unthinkable…plus a huge dose of genuine, compassion for all those impacted.

     
  • Retirement planning, in a financial context, is a planned allocation of monetary savings done with a purpose of managing expenses after retirement. This means setting aside of a part of the current income to obtain a steady flow of cash after retirement. Its goal is to maintain financial independence, so that the need to be gainfully employed becomes optional and not a necessity. It also helps to encourage saving practices.

     
 

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