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Sunshine Village: When Social Media Goes Horribly Wrong

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When you give your customers a voice through social media it creates the potential for a ticking bomb. Like young Spiderman’s grandpa warned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So it is with social media. Sunshine Village is our unfortunate example today with the help of Steve Kibble (a 12 year marketing veteran with expertise in the social and mobile marketing arenas) we’ll review what happened, where it went wrong, and how it could have been easily avoided.

For credibility’s sake, Steve is currently Account Director at Twist Marketing in Calgary and is also consulting for the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) on curriculum for a new digitial marketing program. The full coverage of this incident can be found at his blog.

SlopeFillers: Ok, in your own words give me the 30 second version of what happened at Sunshine Village.
Steve: What we know: Sunshine Village let go a number of their staffers. This occurred shortly after an incident on the slopes involving a family member of the owner being stopped while skiing in a closed area. While we don’t actually know the reasons of the terminations, the optics were not good for the management of the mountain. Some of the former staff have filed lawsuit for wrongfull dismissal. Some time later, some of the remaining staffers staged an apparent walk-out, leaving the mountain short staffed for one day with no notice.

I first noticed this story after the mountain was only able to open 3 of their lifts due to being short staffed, and they were being slammed by members of the public on their Facebook page. Sunshine Village have not, in my opinion, been dealing well with the situation from a social-media communications point of view.

SlopeFillers: So as you started following their social media accounts, where do you feel they made their biggest mistake?
Steve: The bad reviews on Facebook grew exponentially, and spilled over onto Twitter, Yelp and other social media areas. The story about what happened (whether true or not) grew in these areas, and the court of public opinion judged Sunshine Village guilty.

In my opinion, Sunshine Village management should have released an official statement in the early days of this crisis. This may have staved off the subsequent bashing that has continued for several weeks now. That statement could have been an open letter from a senior executive, and should have been posted front and centre on the Sunshine Village website, on their Facebook page, and probably also run as full-page advertisements in various print media.

Clearly, it’s a challenge for Sunshine Village management. When staff are terminated, there are legal limitations on what a company is allowed to say. However, their silence allowed this communication crisis to fester and grow. At this point, from a public-image point of view, it doesn’t really matter what the real reasons for the terminations are. Many of the public have made up their mind.

When they finally did release an official statement, it was published on a new Sunshine Village blog where many people would not see it. Their Facebook page is currently inaccessable and there has yet to be mention of the situation on their website.

SlopeFillers: So lets say Sunshine Village hired you today to take over their Facebook account (assuming it was still accessible), how would you use Facebook to do damage control and start rebuilding their brand?
Steve: It’s very difficult now, considering that it’s been so long. Also, like any marketing activity, a Facebook page cannot stand by itself and must be integrated with other marketing channels.

That said, I would do what I suggested (above) that they didn’t do: an open letter to the public, explaining their side of the story as best as they are allowed to tell it. I would make it from the owner of Sunshine Village, and addressed to all customers. I would also post this front-and-centre on their website, and publish it full page in various print media.

I would also explore finding ways to compensate season pass holders who showed up on the day that all but three lifts were closed. I’m not sure if their POS system records individual customers, but if it does, those customers need to be assured that the management values their business and understands that they may have been inconvenienced when most of the mountain was unavailable.

SlopeFillers: If you had to share one lesson you’ve gleaned from following this story that other resorts can learn from, what would that be?
Steve: Stay on top of the discussions about your brand that are going on in social media areas. If it starts to go downhill, address the concerns immediately. Be upfront, honest and forthright – consumers can see through ingenuous communications. And most importantly, if you aren’t sure you can handle the situation, bring in a professional consultant or agency who has the experience to deal with it.

Note:Steve also sent me this link to a Mashable article about how Southwest Air took a bad situation and tried to make it right using social media. While Southwest’s “apology” blog post could use some work, the speed and openness about it is commendable.

About Gregg & SlopeFillers
I've had more first-time visitors lately, so adding a quick "about" section. I started SlopeFillers in 2010 with the simple goal of sharing great resort marketing strategies. Today I run marketing for resort ecommerce and CRM provider Inntopia, my home mountain is the lovely Nordic Valley, and my favorite marketing campaign remains the Ski Utah TV show that sold me on skiing as a kid in the 90s.

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