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A media beyond press releases and briefings

Whistler Blackcomb, RMOW using social media, as are their critics

If you are looking for evidence of the pervasiveness of social media look no further than the cubicles at Whistler Blackcomb.

The largest company in Whistler now has a team of 20 people whose job descriptions include participating in forums, running Facebook pages and crafting tweets.

That manpower translates into a robust presence on the web. Whistler Blackcomb's Twitter page, @WhistlerBlckcmb, has 9,906 followers. And 37,790 peopleĀ  "like" them on Facebook.

Whistler Blackcomb's embrace of social media is in tune with the direction many other companies in Whistler - and the world - are taking to connect with clients and help spread information.

"Social media plays a huge role in everyday communication at Whistler Blackcomb," explained Amber Turnau, senior media relations officer. "We spend a lot of time monitoring forums, Twitter and Facebook to see what our guests are saying."

And with the new territory comes new challenges.

Now that anyone in the world can distribute information about Whistler Blackcomb with the click of a mouse, the company must constantly check what is being said to immediately address and correct misinformation.

"We are always trying to get a finger on the pulse of what people are saying and adapting our strategy," said Turnau.

"The fact that social media travels so quickly can be good and bad to a company. If you are paying attention to what people are saying, you are able to gage the sentiment easier than if you are just looking at traditional media."

Turnau said in a crisis or issue management situation, social media is now an important part of planning. Before, Whistler Blackcomb may have simply issued a statement. Now the company must go out and actively speak to their client base.

"If there is incorrect information, we are always trying to make sure as many people as we can are able to have access to the correct facts," said Turnau. "It is about being as transparent and as informative as we can to our guests."

The other important aspect that is guiding Whistler Blackcomb's social media strategy, said Turnau, is that people are no longer necessarily going out to find the news. Instead, news is finding them.

Over at municipal hall, the municipality's communications department is also dabbling with social media as a way to tune into taxpayer's conversations.

Government groups have in general been a bit slow to embrace the latest Internet trends, said communication officer Julia Waring. But the Resort Municipality of Whistler is looking at best practices and how to roll out a more comprehensive strategy.

For example, the City of Port Coquitlam, the City of Edmonton, and the District of North Vancouver are three communities embracing the social media trends, said Waring. Among other things, the mayor of Port Coquitlam has a blog, Edmonton has an RSS feed, and North Vancouver posts YouTube videos.

"We see it as something that may be a really cost effective way to engage with Whistler taxpayers and other audiences," said Waring.

"We are using it on top of some more conventional tools. We don't see it as something that will replace things we have used in the past - like advertisements, talking to media and - but it is a new form of communication and we definitely want to be tapped into that conversation."

Unlike Whistler Blackcomb, the municipality doesn't have a team of 20 people to scour the Internet, but they do have a modest presence on both Twitter and Facebook.

Waring said the RMOW is particularly proud of their use of social media during the 2010 Winter Olympics, where they provided up-to-the-minute updates on the Whistler Life program.

Their use of streaming video to air live council meetings has also become popular with the public.

Meanwhile the power of social media in Whistler was evident recently with the spread of concern about the community forest and the municipality's logging of old growth trees.

Several social media pieces on the community forest program, including YouTube videos, contain misinformation. They asked people to boycott Whistler because it would be cutting old growth forest.

A Facebook group was used to organize Thursday's protest in the village, which drew about 15 people.

Despite these examples, Waring was adamant that, in her view, social media is ultimately a positive thing for the community.

"Social media is a two-way conversation, and it is not one we try and control," said Waring. "But knowing that it is going to be happening, we definitely want to be part of that conversation. It is just a new way of talking to our audiences."