Asked how PR has changed over the course of his career, Tom Kelly, VP of communications for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, draws a big box on the board.
Kelly, who has been doing PR for the ski team since the late ’60s, labels the box “Info.” He draws another box and labels it “Media,” and draws an arrow from the first box to the second. Then he draws several smaller boxes, labels them “Public,”âand draws arrows from the Media box to the Public ones.
“Even 10 years ago, if you wanted to convey a message to a broad audience, you had to go through media channels,” Kelly explains. “There was very little direct stakeholder communication.”
Kelly erases the middle box. “Today, with the advent of social media, companies can deliver their message directly to the public. And what’s more, they can fine-tune and customize each message. That’s a substantive change.”
Carolyn Stimpson, VP, resort services at Wachusett, Mass., is inclined to erase another box from Kelly’s drawing—the first one—leaving only the “public” boxes and a bunch of arrows criss-crossing back and forth.
“It’s no longer us or the media speaking to our potential customers, it’s them speaking to each other,” Stimpson says. “Customers are doing PR, not us.”
“Everybody’s the media now,” agrees Tom Meyers, Stimpson’s marketing colleague at Wachusett and a 30-year veteran of the ski industry. “Every single customer is the media. That’s probably the biggest change, and it requires the most adjustment on our part.”
That, and warp speed. “Everything moves so much faster now,” says Steve Clokey, marketing director at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt. “People are able to get information so quickly. You can’t have a picture up fast enough on your website. You don’t have time to sit around. You’re pushing out information as fast as you can.”
Fast and flat. The communication model has changed dramatically in just the last two or three years. Here are some thoughts from veteran industry communicators on how they are adapting to the changes, and what lies ahead.
Content is KingIf everybody’s the media, and everybody’s doing PR, Kelly says his job now is to empower the public to do just that.
“You need to give your stakeholders content they want to share,” he says. “You need to have something sharable, a photo, video, link to something else. If you are providing something interesting and visual, people will share that.”
But beware of being too cute or too clever. “We are always on stage, and we need to realize that,” Kelly says. “It’s so easy to offend someone. Messaging requires a lot more thought from communications people today.”
“It’s all about content,” agrees Meyers. “Fifteen years ago, we were pumping out press releases. Today, the information is always out there on your website, in social media. Now, we’re always reinventing, proposing content that is accessible immediately.”
And is highly targeted. “Instead of sending out a blast e-mail, now we’re targeting families with kids under 10, or teenagers, and what’s going on for them,” Meyers says. “We’re trying to speak to people about what they want to hear.”
“There’s no more big cover story,” Clokey says. “We’re putting information out in small bites. It becomes lots of little cover stories.”
Be aware of the value that hyperlinks have, adds Dave Tragethon, executive director of communications at Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore., another 30-year industry veteran. “Engaging your customers is the name of the game,” he says. “Hyperlinks take them to related material. You can’t do that with print.”
Media ManiaWith new media channels coming online almost daily, which ones are best?
Meyers looks for family and travel bloggers to receive and deliver his message. “And they’re not members of Eastern Ski Writers,” he says.
Clokey says companies cannot be all places all the time. “You have to look at your budget, who you’re trying to reach and where they’re getting their content.”
Each age group has its own sources. Teens get their information in different ways and places than college students, who get their info differently than 20-somethings, who get it differently than moms, who get it differently than dads. “You’ve got to reach people where they are,” he says, noting that Smugglers’ recently changed its website to make it more mobile-friendly.
Tragethon also says communication is all about location, reaching guests where they “hang out.” Mt. Hood Meadows uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The resort has two Twitter handles to update guests about parking availability and lift schedule changes. “We’ve got about 7,000 subscribers,” he says. “It’s worked really well.”
Monitoring the Chatter“It’s great to be part of the conversation,” Tragethon notes. “But I’d rather have guests tell what a great time they’re having here, and not even involve me. It has more credibility.”
But what about the disgruntled guest, or the bad review? What then? Kelly says it is important to monitor “what people are saying about you, and be able to respond to all that chatter about your product.”
“Just the awareness of it is vital,” he says. “There is no more news cycle. Everything is done in real time. Your company can be in the news at any second.”
Meyers says responding to negative reviews, especially those left on third party websites, takes a lot of tact and sensitivity. “Everybody’s learning how to adapt, respond,” he says. “Sometimes, the best response is no response.”
Jack Sibbach, marketing director at Sun Valley, notes that “your community often does the responding for you. If comments or reviews are off-base or negative, the critics often get called out by other people with other information.”
Staffing ChallengesHow has all this new media and monitoring and constant updating impacted staffing?
Kelly and others say it has made everyone in the organization a communicator. “Everyone is a utility player now,” he says. “Everyone in the organization is a communicator, not just PR. It’s important to have key message points and educate your staff about those message points.”
“It’s not just the marketing, PR person who needs to be communicating your message,” Meyers agrees. “It’s the whole organization.” Lift attendants need to know what time lifts open and close, what trails are groomed, the best places for lunch, for example.
As for PR staffs themselves, Kelly cautions about jumping on too many bandwagons. “It comes down to manpower. If you’re going to do social media, you have to do it consistently, and that takes manpower.”
Or, as Clokey says:â“Social media is free. But it sure doesn’t feel free. You need content. You have to hire people to produce that, hire videographers, assign staff for different demographic markets. Communication has gotten easier, and it’s gotten more difficult.”
Facing the FutureIs Facebook dead? Are teens migrating to Twitter? What about print? What about TV? Is that the next casualty?
Asked what he foresees, Tragethon predicts “context” will be the next big change to the communication model. He defines “context” as tailoring your message to where your customer is at any point in time—“Give me info I want to have now, and where I’m at.” He adds, “Content is king, but we are moving to an era where context will be even more important.”
We have mobile communications to thank for that. “These devices are becoming smarter. They know where you are, what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. The challenge moving forward will be tailoring the content that’s most relevant to people when and where they are.” Or knowing that, delivering relevant information even before they know they want it.