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Defusing a Bomb – A Year of Social Media Lessons at Sunshine Village: Doug Firby Interview

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GREGG
BLANCHARD
       

Even being 2,000 miles removed from the situation when the uproar around Sunshine Village began this last winter, I felt like it was happening just down the road thanks to one thing: social media. Voices from both sides wanted to be heard and smack dab in the middle of this blizzard of opinion was Doug Firby, the communications and marketing guy for Sunshine Village. Now, I have no idea who is right and who is wrong, that is not what this post is about. What’s done is done, people have their opinions. What I wanted to know was what Doug had learned from all that had happened and what he hoped to do moving forward.

Let me say that I really appreciate the time Doug put toward these answers. You can tell these aren’t the canned sound-bites I sometimes see in interviews, these are genuine. If I were you I’d drop everything and take some notes. Really.  This is good stuff.

SlopeFillers: Doug, tell us a little bit about yourself and your marketing background.
Doug: I am relatively new to marketing. I came to the Communications position at Sunshine Village in July 2008, after working in newspapers on the editorial side for more than 30 years. Except for a few months in Marketing in the 1990s, all that time was editorial. Since I’ve taken on this position, I’ve taken a couple of university level courses in Marketing to provide some additional academic perspective.

Historically, people who work in the news media have adapted very well to Communications jobs. They understand what journalists need, and are able to anticipate those needs well and cater to them.

SlopeFillers: Social media is a tricky space to master these days.  What lessons have you learned about social media this last winter that you’ll apply with Sunshine Village’s profiles going forward?
Doug: My strength has been in traditional media, but I have always had an assistant working in social media during my time at Sunshine. What we learned is that it’s not enough to “dabble” in Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media sites. Posting updates when there is “happy” news, like large dumps of snow, is easy. It’s much more challenging to deal with an angry mob that has heard a narrative that puts your organization in a bad light. Really, it means you have to take social media seriously, and not treat it like it’s some sort of passing fad. Social media is where people have their conversations, and you need to be part of any conversation that involves your organization.

The key things I’ve learned are these:

  1. It’s important to have thorough and sophisticated monitoring tools in place, so that you know what is being said about you and where. If there is a firestorm brewing on a certain blog, for example, you need to be there to see what is being said, and to start formulating a response. Sometimes, that response could be as simple as correcting factual inaccuracies; at other times, it can be much more complicated than that.
  2. If you’re a company that is being accused of making a mistake or doing something wrong, then you must have an executive-approved statement ready to go. Not having the bosses signed off on a statement creates the potential for crisis paralysis, as those executives debate what should be said. The company needs to come forward and respond to whatever is being said immediately, and not allow discussion to fester while the company stands by in silence. But that means everyone in charge must be signed off on what will be said. This is best done before you get into a communications crisis.
  3. A crisis communications plan should be drafted long before you encounter a problem. Make a list of all the things that could go wrong – labour dispute, accident, avalanche, tower failure and so on – and draft out ahead of time who will speak and what will be said.
  4. Draw boundaries. Decide what is fair comment and allow people to have their say. But when comments become abusive or obscene, know when to draw the line. In our case, we set certain standards for our Facebook page and other sites, and stuck to them. We encouraged our critics to have their say on our blog page (sunshinevillageblog.com) . Some people didn’t like that, and took the discussion elsewhere. Ultimately, I think setting those limits was the right thing to do.

Finally, I think any organization needs to fully consider the communications or public relations implications of any major action they decide to take. That means having those PR professionals involved in the decision-making process. The company’s decision might ultimately be the same, but even so it will be made with eyes wide open.

SlopeFillers: That is an interesting idea to route negative discussion elsewhere, like your blog.  Who did you have monitoring/responding to comments on the blog?  And along with that, did you have a policy in place to guide how they responded or did each response need to be approved?
Doug: We have a very small communications team sharing the duties of monitoring and responding – myself, my assistant and one other. Our guidelines are to stick to the facts, be respectful in replies and try not to get drawn into debates. Responses don’t need to be pre-authorized, but everyone has a good sense of when to seek advice if a question appears to be excessively hostile or leading into a broader discussion. The objective is to bend over backwards to keep the lines of communication open, and to allow people to have their say, regardless of whether we agree or disagree. The only comments that aren’t approved are ones that contain obscenities, attack the character of others or that deliberately misrepresent the situation as we know it. It’s always a judgment call, but we try to err on the side of being very tolerant.

SlopeFillers: For a while there it appeared the Sunshine Village Facebook page was missing.  What was the tipping point that made you decide to pull it down, when did you decide it was time to bring it back, and what are some of your goals going forward?
Doug: The Facebook page was closed down for a time when it was being swamped with negativity – constant swearing, highly abusive language, and there were several angry participants who were using it as a means to conduct a kind of a kangaroo court. Several questioners were trying to “cross-exam” Sunshine (i.e. demand answers and then challenge the veracity of those answers) on the Facebook page. It had a bit of a mob feel to it. Individuals who tried to defend Sunshine were shouted down and ridiculed. Others who just wanted to post images or a video of a great day on the slopes were equally singled out. So, all in all, it seemed to have descended into a very unhealthy “discussion”, if you could even call it that.

We thought long and hard about taking it down, because we really didn’t want to. The conventional wisdom is that you’re supposed to just let the negative criticism run its course. Ultimately, we decided we had no choice but to take a break, though. Before we put it back up, we made sure we had the resources to moderate the discussions on the page, so that we wouldn’t just fall back into another round of negativity. That’s partly why we created the blog: “If you want to carry on with a discussion about the fired staff, here’s the place to do it.” This allowed people who wanted to resume normal communications – to talk about the snow or events or whatever – to do so on Facebook. The page was down for several weeks: Enough time had passed that a lot of people didn’t want to continue on with the endless discussion about the dismissals anyway; a lot of them were tired of the subject by then.

Going forward, our Facebook page is becoming what it always should have been – not so much a pure promotional tool as a place to have conversations, to share a sense of community and to provide information about upcoming events. There are still some critical comments on the page, and we listen to those comments and channel them to the appropriate managers. That’s part of what any Facebook page should be doing. Our page is now part of a much larger communications vision, employing all of the conventional and social media.

SlopeFillers: Anything else you’d like to add?  Advice?  Other lessons?  Ideas?
Doug: I’ve learned not to be too closely tied to “conventional wisdom” on social media, because this environment is so new I don’t think anyone fully understands it. Do what feels right in your gut, have a very clear sense of your principles and stick to them.

Most importantly, do NOT wait until you are in a crisis to deal with the communications challenges. I hope some of your readers can use our experience as a cautionary tale. Take our story, show it to your bosses and tell them, “If you’re not prepared, this could happen to you.” Have a crisis communications plan in place. Be willing to invest in the time and resources you need to do social media properly. Educate yourself on the basic ground rules, and immerse yourself in social media until you fully understand them. Spend a lot of time listening. None of these actions will prevent a negative round of publicity, but they might help your organization stay in the conversation.

Realize that a communications revolution has taken place. This is how people talk today. Don’t treat social media like it’s a passing fad.

One final thought: Once you understand social media, you’ll see how effective they can be in connecting you with your audience in ways you never could before. You’ll learn a lot from those people about how you can run your organization better. You’ll learn about what people want. It’s time extremely well-invested.



  • What a great and candid interview. I am very impressed with Mr Firby's answers, they seem very forthright and from the heart. Great job on the interview SlopeFillers!

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks, Jamie. Yeah, I was very impressed as well. Not an easy situation he found himself in, but he's done as well as you could expect…if not better.

  • JBT

    “Some people didn’t …

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks for the comment JBT, you make great points, but I'm just trying to keep this relevant to the readers of the blog. Thanks!

  • Bob

    So I guess that …

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks for the comment Bob, same thing as I’ve said to others, you make really great points, but I’m just trying to keep this relevant to the readers of the blog. Thanks!

  • James Anderson

    Well done interview on social media. I would like to now have an interview on all that happened last season.

  • great post, humble response from mr firby

  • quantman

    A good interview with good ideas. However…

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks for the comment Quantman, and like the others you do make great points, but I'm just trying to keep this relevant to the readers of the blog. Thanks!

  • Scott

    Umm… you don't diffuse a bomb, slopefiller people. You DEFUSE a bomb.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks for the catch, Scott :)

  • Billy

    Curiously there was…

    • GreggBlanchard

      Billy, thanks for the comment. Great points, but what you are discussing is what a legal team would be doing, not a social media crew so I edited down your comment, just trying to keep things relevant to the audience that comes to this blog.

  • JDM

    Good interview. I wouldn't have objected to some discussion of the impact of threats of legal action against third party mediums in which negativity is being posted – at one point a web forum was threatened by Sunshine. That sort of thing has occurred a few times over the past couple of years in the ski industry specifically and been uniformly disastrous. However, it's usually a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, is my understanding. Consequently, and Firby's thoughts on this would've been interesting, communication between groups internally having vastly different roles, and making sure that people who don't do media / marketing / publicity for your organization are keenly aware of the PR effects of their decisions (given the free flow of information and how quickly fires start) would be a good discussion topic.

  • MThornton

    Comment on item #3 regarding crisis communication.
    The key element is sincerity, and a pre-prepared statement plan cannot hope to address the utteryly unique elements of each avalanche, labour disput or lift incident. You can smell pre-prepared statements from a hundred miles, which is why people often distrust marketing types.
    Plan a statement structure or outline perhaps, but people really want expert insider details. Marketing folks primary job is the important task of selling their ski-area services. Marketing people usually have minimal knowledge regarding lift issues, snow-stability, accident evaluation or labour strife. But each ski-area's marketing director is usually the best skilled senior manager at the art of communicating in media.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Thanks for the feedback MThornton. It is true, a key element is sincerity, one of many. But the first statement after a situation like this will almost always need to be approved by someone higher up. What I think he was getting at was that being quick to address concerns is also an important key, and striking a balance between being quick, being sincere, and being approved may be best handled by trying to have a statement you can use to quickly reply that is preapproved.

  • Interesting article.

  • Obviously Doug is in an incredibly tough spot. It sounds like he's done as well as humanly possible given the circumstances. Everyone knows that the SSV situation will become a social media case study. Question for Doug: have you ever been in a position where you've disagreed with ownerships position? How did you (or would you) handle it?

    If Doug would like to give SSV point-of-view on the ski patrol issue we'd iove to get your input here:
    http://forum.nyskiblog.com/Clouds-over-Sunshine-V

    I'd be curious to see the comments that have moderated out of this blog entry. I can only assume that they are about the specifics of the ski patrol issue. I realize that this a blog, which is more about one way communication than a forum or a network like facebook, but if you want to develop an engaged following, it's important to let your audience take the topic and run with it to some extent. Most skiers are more interested in the specifics of this case than a primer on social media. I'm hoping I've kept this comment on the topic enough to have it pass through the filter.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Harvey, your comment is well within the lines. The comments I have edited out (nearly all) were discussing legal things that SSV has done (I think you can imagine which) that are the responsibility of the legal team and have no relation to the marketing we are discussing here. I appreciate the comments, but sadly it's the same note being stuck over and over by justifiably frustrated people, and I wanted to be sure they didn't drown out the real discussion this blog was built for.

  • DasBlu

    Interesting article and a good example of executives going back for Post-grad education, albeit a little too late!

    This lawsuit and the resulting press will be a case study for a long time on how NOT to deal with your patrons and social media. Embarrassing, is to say the least for Sunshine and Mr. Firby. The whole era of Mr. Firby and Sunshine's entire public reputation will be judged by these mistakes against their employees and their patrons.

  • Just saw that they are hiring for social media/community person. Then saw that it will be located in, wait for it, Calgary. Makes me think maybe lessons are not being learned (amazingly). One would think that the lead content producer/communicator would need to be at/near the mountain to be relevant and credible. Otherwise it's just tending to the hate desk from afar. Still time to fix that one.

    • GreggBlanchard

      Oh dear, really? I hope that is a mistake. Doug made some great points in his interview, but I'm worried they are lessons that have been learned, but not applied. They've got a long way to go.

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