Six months after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the theater announced that it would reopen in January – and emailed an invitation to the victims’ families so they could reserve tickets.
Several family members were furious.
“Thanks for making what is a very difficult holiday season that much more difficult. Timing is everything and yours is awful,” said several family members in a letter to Cinemark USA, published in the Denver Post.
Half a year is a long time for a business to be shuttered. The Century 16 theater, owned by Cinemark USA, missed some of the biggest revenue-generating films of 2012, from “Skyfall” to “The Hobbit.” So it’s understandable that the owners wish to highlight the reopening and commendable that they want to have a time of remembrance for the victims.
Cinemark’s PR gaffe is not in holding the event but in how it decided to do so.
According to news reports, Cinemark has made little or no effort to connect with the families since the July shooting, rebuffing any such requests. When considering the reopening, the theater chain spoke with many others in the community – except the victims’ families.
Given the lawsuits filed since July, no doubt Cinemark’s silence came at the behest of its lawyers. Still, common sense (and good public relations) dictates that the people affected by this tragedy should have been approached first.
Had Cinemark made an effort to speak with the families and involve them in the decision, the reopening might have provided some of the healing that the theater owner and community leaders hoped it would.
I prefer to think the theater owner’s gesture was sincere, just poorly done. Given the negative response, Cinemark would be wise to nix the grand reopening ceremony – pursuing it now would make Cinemark appear uncaring – in favor of a quiet reopening and a long-overdue outreach to the families.
In PR, we talk a lot about “lessons learned,” that is, what new knowledge we can glean from hindsight. Fair enough. But the most effective public relations efforts are those that lean toward foresight.
And, in this case, a whole lot more empathy.