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Snowbasin’s Sticky Situation: Ski Industry PR Weighs In

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GREGG
BLANCHARD
       

When all the worlds your brand’s stage, massive potential for both the good and the bad come to light. On the one side, everyone could talk about how awesome your resort is. On the other, the masses might find some cause that hurts your brand, and ride it until they’re satisfied. Such is the case with Snowbasin this last week. On Tuesday night, two snowboarders posted a video of an encounter with a patrolman where, for one reason or another, he lost his composure for a few minutes and dropped the f-bomb.

Watching the video reminded me of an incident I had with ski patrol at Brighton. To this day I have no idea why he stopped me and had so much to yell about. Knowing others had been in my boots, I figured there with be some sort of reaction from the ski community. The response, however, blew me away. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised though. To this day, every time I mention Sunshine Village on this blog, I get hate email from those that sided with the ski patrol in their incident earlier this year.

The one thing I will say is that this could have happened to any resort. So, as you read these ideas, imagine if this video were filmed at your resort. Are you ready?

With a suggestion from Jon Slaughter at Boreal, I thought it might be wise to consult a couple other voices who had more experience in this sort of thing and see what they had to say. Both make interesting points, and I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but that’s the beauty of various points of view: seeing how others with different experience see thing.

First up is Skip King from www.reputationstrategies.com and former VP of Communications at Sunday River. Skip is not only a PR expert, but a former partolman and I think you’ll find he has an interesting take on the situation:
“The Snowbasin video is an examplar of online scandal nowadays: we get to see outrageous behavior inflicted by people in authority upon hapless “victims,” but we don’t get to see what led up to it (recent memorable example: the UC Davis pepper spray incident). In the extended version of the video (conveniently posted by the same sprats who posted the first one), it’s clear that he came close enough to a stopped skier (an instructor, not far uphill of another instructor with a young student) that I sure would’ve stopped him and had a word. And I’m an ex-patroller.

“The problem is this: control of video edits is the province of the people who post them, and most viewers won’t assume that what they’re seeing is incomplete. So lesson one is this: make sure your staff fully understands that today’s technology means that everyone who sets foot on your premises is a (poorly trained) reporter, and that just about anything they say and do as employees can show up online.

“Snowbasin’s response was far from the worst I’ve seen, but I do think it was, for lack of a better term, tepid. Yes, they owned up – but they could have done more. For starters: while it’s important to acknowledge that the patroller’s language was unprofessional and unacceptable, it would not have been inappropriate to disclose that the kids had, in the judgment of Snowbasin staff, jeopardized the safety of another guest – and that slope safety is a huge part of the job of patrollers and instructors. Let’s remember that it’s not just highly-charged younger participants who see this stuff; moms and dads do, too.

“Additionally, Snowbasin might have been more forthcoming. They said they’ve “taken measures to prevent this type of incident occurring in the future.” Well, fine – how about some specifics? Are they measures that a reasonable public can agree will be effective? As it is, an unreasonable public – and there appears to be a fair amount of it among the chattering online masses – could be left with the impression that Snowbasin is merely applying a PR band-aid and trying to move on.

“Personalizing can help, too. If the post had been directly attributed to the resort’s general manager, that would have been stronger. Stronger still would have been a personal apology from the patroller for his language and demeanor – and particularly for blowing off the opportunity to educate and explain and helping this kid become a more responsible part of the mountain community, rather than coming off as the heavy.

“Like I said, this wasn’t the worst response I’ve seen – far from it – but I think it could have been stronger. And we can all expect more of this type of video in the future. The best defense is staff awareness, but when embarrassing things occur (and they wil) candor and openness are the keys to defusing the situation. The public will forgive mistakes, as long as it knows you take the mistake seriously and are engaged in logical, concrete steps to fix the problem. ”

When the shenanigans began, Alex Kaufman (find him at www.mediawithak.com/) posted some advice on their wall. Offering him a chance to expound on his thoughts, here’s what he said:
“There is no tool in the PR toolbox that is going to keep that from blowing up other than sniffing out the video before it gets posted (very difficult). Once that video is out, and especially once it’s been tweeted by a few top pro athletes, there’s no stopping it. Few messages resonate more than young people being accosted for their youthful exuberance by people of authority. It’s a theme of life, not just skiing. It’s rarely caught on tape. Regardless of the details of the on-hill exchange, or the fact that the patroller did apologize on video, that video tossed a match on the smoldering angst of youth vs authority in a way that is rarely captured.

“Granting that, when I first saw that video, which was very early on Wednesday, my first move would be an email to the TOP of my organization, aimed to get their full attention immediately. Something like: “We are about to face the largest staff related negative PR since Sunshine Village. We will not be able to stop it. We can only try to address it and reduce the impacts. The longer we wait to address it, the worse it will be for our business levels for years to come, our staff morale and the relationships we have with our partners. I have some scenarios for you to choose from. I would like to meet immediately to brief you.”

“Hopefully that would get the head honchos attention and allow you to get the team up to speed on what’s unfolding, a few options to address it, and roll that out as soon as possible. In reality, they’ve done well to not give the mob new content to dissect. The prepared statement could have surely been more “human” and without a doubt half a day faster, which is very significant. The extent of sharing of the video grows the longer there is no Snowbasin reply as public frustration adds fuel until it’s quenched by a response. The sooner your resort can “turn the corner” by acknowledging, the smaller and more reasoned the situation will be overall. Sugarloaf kicked butt at this last year. Granted their situation was more obvious, but their speed and candor allowed them to remain the most trusted source in a situation when there were many sources. A 2 hour delay would have been unrecoverable. Speed saves.

“But in general, it’s stayed a SLC and ski/snowboard story rather than national news and people are realizing that it’s more of a dust up than a real tragedy. Hopefully Snowbasin will use this as an opportunity to improve as an operation. Whether an isolated incident or not, one would think this will lead to a greater focus on guest service and staff training. Addressing the public reputation issue is also not rocket science. A series of humanizing web videos highlighting the front-line people that make Snowbasin great should be in order. Not too staged or scripted, just being themselves.

“I do envision a time when Snowbasin could actually capitalize on this in some way. Much like Alec Baldwin did after the airline dust up. For instance, a comedic patrol video that showed how to not drop bombs, or when to call for backup due to excited people, something like that. Maybe next year when they want to make a splash pre-season. Self deprecation can get folks to forgive.”



  • dhoude

    Good points … Obviously the patroller went a bit too far but the skier or rider who was actually doing the filming? How's that for dangerous?

  • Shawn_Alain

    My guess is there's probably a lot of company wide emails going out at ski resorts today reminding their staff we live in a world of Social Media.

  • Jeff Werkheiser

    Managing a ski resort's social media myself, I definitely felt for snowbasin's social/PR team that morning. Like you said, it could have happened anywhere, and without question would have been a highly stressful situation. But, I couldn't agree more with Alex – this should've been addressed and dealt with socially right away, that morning. It's very unfortunate for Snowbasin that it had to happen to them but I do think good can come out of it. They can use this for good (as mentioned above) and this can also be used as a case study for the industry.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Great points, Jeff. I think they're in the same boat with social. Hopefully this doesn't happen again to any resort, but like you said, we can all learn and hopefully the industry will slowly be more and more prepared for stuff like this.

  • Frank_Stim

    Snowbasin's reaction? Fire the ski patroller, neuter and demoralize the staff and make no significant statement to placate the petulant, pitchfork mob that ran amok.

  • J.V.

    Skip King's reaction is EXACTLY what was so messed up about this situation. I don't know how he can call himself a PR professional. First off, in the extended version the kid comfortably goes by some STANDING (as in stationary and not moving) on the side of the hill. He goes off a tiny jump and is barely moving fast enough to get six inches under his board. So, we did see what happens and the recklessness of it is questionable at best. If ol' curmudgeonly Skip wants to call it unsafe, fine. Let's call it unsafe. BUT THAT IS 100 PERCENT NOT THE POINT. The kids were absolutely polite the entire time. When the offender politely tried to state his case (even when a cop pulls you over, he usually asks what you were doing) the patroller, who'd already pulled his pass for one day, ups it to two. Basically he's flexing his authoritative muscle on the kid for even politely questioning the decision. Did I mention this is a customer relationship and not a Game of Thrones episode? AND THEN when his buddy tries to politely interject he tells him to keep his f-ing mouth shut. The apology is moot. You can't, as a 50 something year old dude to a polite teenager, drop the f-bomb against them and then a few minutes later be like, "oh, sorry." If the cashier at McDonald's told you to "keep your F-ing mouth shut if you still want that side of fries," does it really matter if they say "sorry" a few minutes later? This is the issue with this whole situation. The patroller was 100 percent wrong and Skip's take on the situation is exactly why this situation occurred in the first place. The patroller, in my opinion, doesn't need to get fired, but what he did was not only terribly over the top, but more unfortunately was a great disservice to ski patrollers. Lots of ski patrollers (recent article on Mt. Baker ski patrol in Powder Magazine) are out there risking their lives and going above and beyond for very little pay all so we can come to a mountain and have reckless (skiing will always be reckless) fun in the safest way possible.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Wow, deep breaths, JV, deep breaths. With that much emotion in your writing, lets hope that you aren't a patroller or in PR. If you get that excited about something that didn't even happen to you, I can only imagine your response if you were in Tim Taylor's shoes ;)

  • Obviously Snowbasin took waaaay to long to deal with the video and respond. From industry sources inside Utah, I was told that this reflects larger issues with Snowbasin's upper level management, but I've got no way to collaborate this or any insights regarding that. I've also heard from locals that this kind of guest interaction is endemic when it comes to the ski patrol at the mountain. Again, I've not had any personal experiences to confirm this. Regardless, the incident is a great educational opportunity for resorts on how staff always should assume that they are being filmed in their interactions with the general public, and that if the interaction is negative or a staffer is out of control, the situation is only one click away from becoming broadcast to a much greater audience, who may or may not be receptive to the resort's situation in that regard. A good lesson for sure.

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  • resortsinvestor

    Why not promote the hill has zero tolerance for anyone who skis or rides "at" or too close to anyone in beginner areas, and won't issue "warnings": do the crime, do the time. I'd highlight the run was where the park "rats" (with attitude) merge with toddlers and newbies so the patrol are there for a reason.

    Nearly all he posts by other young hoons around the country spat vitriole at anyone who dares question their "ownership" of the hill. They can go buy their own hill.

    • GreggBlanchard

      A zero tolerance policy would be interesting, but I'd be afraid that it would make all the guests more nervous than they should be. Seems a little too strict for a sport that for many is built around the idea of freedom.

  • slaughter

    for me I took the situation as a learning opportunity. I think it really highlighted how quickly something small can snowball out of control. While I don't condone dropping f-bombs, the incident was relativity insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, it was caught on tape and seemingly ignored which turned a small fire into a raging inferno. Even now SB can't seem to post a daily update without STFU Tim Taylor comments getting blasted right back at them.
    In response I had each of my staff members replay the scenario as if it happened at Boreal and come up with their own response to the scenario. We were able to have a great debate about what the best course of action would be. Thanks for getting input from Skip and Alex, it was really cool to get some different perspectives.

  • I'm curious about Alex's statement "There is no tool in the PR toolbox that is going to keep that from blowing up other than sniffing out the video before it gets posted (very difficult)." There are tools that can sniff these out sometimes within minutes of them being posted, like google alert, but I'm curious to know what exactly would he suggest? I can think of a few scenarios and they all end in disaster. History has shown us that when trying to bottle something in Social Media it usually has the exact opposite effect. Best case in a situation like this is to give it your full and immediate attention and get a response out as soon as possible.

    • Skip King

      Shawn, that was pretty much Alex's point – to utilize available technology, recognize the threat, and prepare the best possible response. Certain stories are almost guaranteed viral, and this was one of them. Such stories touch deeply held beliefs or hold a candle to shared concerns. If the story is presented via social media in a particularly compelling way (great outrage, great wit – example of that, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo – then the ability of an organization to actually CONTAIN it is minimal. Successful management hinges on quality of response as a mechanism of limiting the damage.

      J.V., we agree on two points: 1) that the patroller's language and demeanor were out of line, and 2) that the kids were polite (more or less). Please bear in mind that it's possible to be polite and still be in the wrong. That's what appears to have happened here.

      You've got a lot of passion for the sports, clearly. Suggestion: at some point, think about becoming a patroller. I'm serious. There's no better way to share your passion for the mountains and the sport you love. It's fun, too (mostly).

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