I tend not to even attempt to ski on weekends, but with friends in town I headed up first thing last Saturday to rip some 'roy for a few hours before the crowd descended. What I experienced, as have many of you, is that Whistler Blackcomb remains a standout in what has been a categorically dismal winter for skiing along the Pacific Coast, from California to Alaska. Despite freezing levels going up and down like a toilet seat (and feeling like they're averaging 1,000 metres higher than usual), a combination of altitude and first-class work by groomers, snowmakers and other mountain staff have ensured that not only is there still plenty of snow in the alpine, but on-piste skiing is anywhere from pretty OK to pretty damn good. And a spectacular bluebird weekend made for skiing that had many visitors — expecting the worst given nearby resort closings — shaking heads at their good fortune. Indeed I had a hard time convincing friends I'd had a great day on the hill. And if this was hard for me, well, it got me wondering what it's like for those whose job it is to push such information out into the bigger world — like the tireless PR team headed by Whistler Blackcomb's media maven, Michelle Leroux.
Leroux, 37 and now on her second go-round as PR and communications manager at the resort, has faced such challenges before. But as the tectonic rumblings of social media shifted the PR landscape over the last few years, so has the way such things are addressed. Having straddled the transition from analog to digital ages in her time at the helm, Leroux's experience is of interest to those who might wonder — or criticize — how a mountain maintains its edge in a crowded market when "the product" goes south.
"PR is both easier and harder nowadays," offers Leroux. "Direct accessibility to media through digital channels means that it's much easier to get stories out. And there are far more niche options; for instance, we can pitch a vegan mag or website about something like the Raven's Nest menu. But PR is also harder now because we're not just talking to media anymore — we're also talking to guests via social media, fielding their questions, etc."
If, as Leroux suggests, resort PR is now also guest relations, it also means PR pros are increasingly face-to-face with those who want/need answers now.
"Because of the way media is consumed today, there's more urgency to everything. Getting specific information from busy people at the mountain or in town to fit a media outlet's schedule can be hard to accommodate; there used to be a time lag when it was just print, but now that stories are posted online immediately we have to deliver in their timeframe."
Information urgency also has a visual component. The immediacy of social media (#tbt notwithstanding) demands that photos the mountain shares be taken that day, lest there be a perception of dishonesty. The result? "PR has literally become a voracious beast that you constantly have to feed — and the faster you feed it the hungrier it gets," laments Leroux. "But if you don't have anything new, media don't want to talk to you. So, every day it's like, OK — what do we have? If it's snowing, that's obvious, but if not it's on to Plan B — avy dog puppies, food, etc."
There's been a lot of Plan B-ing this winter. Fortunately, Leroux has the necessary experience on all fronts to deal with it.
Fresh off a Bachelor of Communications degree from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Leroux became communications coordinator at Intrawest-owned Panorama Mountain Resort in 2002. Each morning she'd post the snow report from her house in Invermere, then head in to work to send it around to those on her list, work on a weekly email newsletter, write press releases, and host the occasional FAM (the ubiquitous "familiarity trip" is hosted by travel and tourism concerns to let industry and media types experience their offerings). "It was a really hard go because we were so small that destination mags weren't interested, and we were too far from Calgary to be considered local. Our biggest news was in the fall when racers from Europe came for early season training and we'd open the lifts and pistes a month before anyone else. Panorama's terrain is very good; if it got good snow it would rival many areas."
Nevertheless, Leroux, who grew up in Alberta's not-too-distant Crowsnest Pass, was able to weather the storm — or lack thereof. "It was a great place to cut my teeth. Being part of Intrawest, we always looked to Whistler Blackcomb as the best of everything, so I aspired to that. I'd met WB people who came through on Intrawest FAMs and one of them let me know there was a snowphone job open there. When I interviewed for it, (former WB communications director) Christina Allsop thought I was better suited for another job — destination PR supervisor, managing WB's athlete team and working with the core print, photo and film media. I started in September 2004 and had to get right on looking at athlete portfolios."
In Panorama, Leroux had signed on big-mountain skier Ian McIntosh — an Invermere boy then living in Whistler — as an ambassadorial athlete. Her first act at WB was to move McIntosh onto the team here. Though this was her "dream job," Leroux admits to occasional moments of being over her head or feeling she wasn't quite cool enough to cut it. "When Victoria Jealouse got hold of me I literally lost my shit; I started snowboarding when I was 16 and really looked up to her. We ended up going for tea together and she was great... but I was still freaking out."
Being constantly eye-to-eye with some of the world's greatest snowsport athletes can do that to you. But Leroux knew it also meant something else: working in a resort where seemingly everyone wanted to go, she'd just moved from PR famine to PR feast.
Next week: The Digital Dish.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.