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Massage Envy CEO Responds to Media Frenzy Nightmare regarding Sexual Assault Claims at Franchisee Spas

A major media frenzy last week exposing 180 sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and state board complaints by customers against the Massage Envy chain, alleging therapists crossed the line into molestation while performing massages, prompted the franchise company to retort in an effort to protect its brand. Some question why the company did not respond immediately.

An in-depth report by BuzzFeed News had revealed the litigation and complaints by spa clients across the country at some of the franchisor's 1,100 locations.  Massage Envy, a billion-dollar firm, is the largest chain of massage parlor franchises and operates under the umbrella of the Roark Capital private equity firm. The report stated that one victim who had filed suit against the massage spa chain told the reporter that the franchisee and employees took no action on her complaint. After she reported the incident to the police, the therapist admitted to the crime of assaulting her and nine other customers and was indicted.

When the franchisee was later questioned by attorneys regarding the spa's reaction to the complaint of sexual assault, she said she was following the policy of Massage Envy, and therefore she thought her decision was appropriate.

Joseph C. Magnacca, CEO Massage Envy Franchising LLC, sent out an email to spa clients last week saying, "I, like so many of you, continue to be sickened and so disheartened by the stories that have recently been published about sexual misconduct at Massage Envy franchise locations." He then apologized stating, "We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and to those who suffered, I am deeply sorry."

Magnacca explained that his company chose not to immediately respond to the media reports, but instead talked directly to victims and victim rights groups, industry associations, and sexual violence experts to help define a plan going forward. He said Massage Envy will soon share the details of a "comprehensive and transparent path" it will be taking, to make meaningful change to its industry. The CEO said they have to do it "thoughtfully and we cannot do it alone." He added that, thankfully, there are many others that feel like Massage Envy does and they are anxious to help.

At the same time of Magnacca's apology, reported that following the bombshell news report of sexual assault lawsuits within the company, Massage Envy is now facing a dire marketing crisis. On November 29, the Illinois attorney general initiated an investigation into the complaints, which include lawsuits and police reports, "as consumers advocated for boycotts of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based chain's 1,150 franchise locations," the report said.

Ad Age stated that "Aside from issuing a statement to various news outlets that it does not comment on legal cases and that it 'holds franchise owners accountable' to its policies, Massage Envy has largely kept silent." The publication said the franchise company did not respond to its request for comment, adding, "Such failure to address the issue in its consumer-facing communication, especially during a week when prominent figures, including Matt Lauer, have joined the list of those under fire for sexual harassment, is a mistake, experts say."

Massage Envy new action plan

CEO Magnacca's letter revealed his company's first step in its commitment to safety, updated on December 5:

  • Each location was required to review, recommunicate and, in no uncertain terms, recommit to our safety and reporting policies.
  • We have just completed an additional review of all massage therapist files to ensure they have a completed background check and professional reference checks as well as to ensure their licensure/certification is current and annual training requirements have been met.
  • Our accredited third-party background screening company has begun rescreening each and every one of the 20,000 licensed massage therapists within the Massage Envy network.

The letter states, "Let me be clear: this is just the start and these first steps are not the complete answer. We are taking a hard look at ourselves and at the additional changes we must make. Next week, we will announce those changes and begin to put them into action. We will never stop working to earn your trust."

Massage Envy action plan viewed as a little too late

Gene Grabowski, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based PR firm Kglobal, was quoted by Ad Age saying, "They [Massage Envy administration] obviously don't have a crisis communication plan." He explained, "When you think of a company that's touching people for a living not having a plan, frankly, from a legal perspective, I don't understand how that's possible." The PR executive said other franchise operators, like McDonald's, hold franchisees liable to strict quality standards. His suggestion, in addition to issuing an apology, was to "take responsibility by requiring all franchisees and their employees to take a requalification program." He said that should include a provision promising to notify law enforcement of any complaints of inappropriate behavior. pointed out that in Massage Envy's Twitter post earlier that week, the day BuzzFeed published its article, suggested that customers should recover from the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend "by taking time for yourself."

Cindy Gallop, a diversity advocate, tweeted her post saying, "Women everywhere, please boycott @massageenvy IMMEDIATELY. Cancel your subscriptions. Use your economic power to force the company to take sexual assault seriously and eradicate it once and for all."

PR expert Grabowski said that Massage Envy now has people reluctant to go into their stores. "You don't know if the brand's going to survive this—I'm not going to send my wife or daughter or anyone close to me for a massage."

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