After starting as Whistler Blackcomb's Destination PR Supervisor in 2004, Michelle Leroux continued to focus on leveraging the resort's laundry list of accolades through traditional core print, photo and film media. With the rise of social media in the latter part of the decade, however, Leroux recognized a growing opportunity. "We initially had profile pages on Facebook, MySpace and Snowboard.com, then moved to groups, where I could really start to use it."
At this point, with the impending Olympics presenting no end of additional content, a PR dream landed in Leroux's lap, one that boasted its own ready-made list of superlatives — the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. As it neared completion, she and a crew hit the road towing a gondola cabin fixed to a trailer on a cross-country promotional tour that proved a career watershed.
"It was so amazing. Journalists love 'biggest,' 'highest,' 'longest,' 'most expensive' — and we had it all. We kicked off the tour in Toronto on CTV's Canada AM, and everywhere we went people would say, 'Oh, we saw you on Canada AM!' "We felt like rock stars — one national broadcast paved the way for us to show up in every other city with TV cameras and reporters already waiting. We were also creating videos, tweeting, booking things on the run, getting road permits for our over-width trailer as we drove — just flying by the seat of our pants and loving it. When we got back we planned the gondola's opening and Shane McConkey BASE-jumped off it — a mind-blowing stunt. I felt a lot of ownership for the lift, like it was my PR baby. When the first cabin went across the line I actually cried."
The P2P was an emotional high for Leroux, but it was also a swan song. With growing expertise and seeking change, Leroux left WB to try her hand at contract social media. Launched in 2009, Reine Communications served clients like Crankworx, Tourism Whistler, RMOW, Whistler Arts Council, Whistler Chamber of Commerce, Scandinave Spa, Pan Pacific Vancouver, Origin Design + Communications, Whistler Blackcomb, Momentum Ski Camps, Aava Hotel, Whistler Film Festival, and TEDxWhistler. It was hard work that delivered hard lessons.
"PR was always tough to contract because people are paying for something that may or may not get results. So social media seemed like a great solution for a lot of businesses. My ability to grow their communities and get people engaged was provable — you could track it," says Leroux of her three years spent swirling in the rapidly evolving, social-media vortex. "But working accounts for so many clients at the same time breaks your mind into a million pieces. Updates. Tweaks to this and that. It's hard to keep it all straight."
The bloom was off the rose in other ways as well. "Social media as a powerful, free promotional tool was changing. More than 50 per cent of all social media activity lives on Facebook, and now you have to pay to get the level of engagement you could once get organically."
Paying for promotion and someone's time is tough for small enterprises to budget. Furthermore, Leroux felt the isolation of working at home all day. No surprise then, that in 2012 she rejoined her alma mater as PR and Communications Manager. "I wanted to be back on a team, and now I have six people working under me and all sorts of others cycling through my office. Sometimes that's hard because you don't get to do as much fun stuff, just help others get over the PR hurdles they're facing."
A bigger struggle, perhaps, is the ever-narrowing marketplace separation of Promotional church and Sales state. "When social media first emerged it made sense to have it under PR. Nowadays it doesn't belong; we control the messaging but marketing is also involved — it's less the traditional editorial realm and more about interactive stuff and advertising. And reach has changed. If something isn't 'liked' right away it doesn't populate feeds. So you have to put money behind it to get the same reach — and that's marketing."
If a changing media landscape means there's no longer any pure advertising or pure editorial — i.e., more like a churchy state and a state-y church — what does Leroux see for the future? "It's increasingly hard to capture the attention of endemic magazines because they all feel that they've 'been there, done that,' so I see PR merging with marketing and become publishers for the brand — the brand will be the media outlet."
That advent could, for instance, aid promotion of longstanding formula events like Deep Winter, Deep Summer and WSSF that aren't inherently newsy. "Watching the WSSF big air with the crowd or being in the ballroom for Deep Winter are special moments and hard to translate into print or even video. We get great digital coverage from WSSF, but being the end of season it's old news for fall print, and the things that make it amazing, like Filmmakers Showdown, are hard to capture in a story."
While such large-scale and iconic events continue to build Whistler's reputation through the experience (and personal social media feeds) of attendees, others — like Crankworx — offer more promotional leverage. "Mountain biking is a younger industry," says Leroux. "No one is nipping at our heels. The best riders in the world come every year, the tricks aren't seen elsewhere, and the whole thing is webcast, all of which makes it newsy — plus dirt is dirt, wet or dry."
Which returns us to where we started (see PR Part 1: the tough sell in Pique Feb. 26): the PR challenges of a low-snow winter and the fact that guests/viewers demand quick turnaround on media material, caring more about timeliness than quality or storytelling aspects. "Being time-poor and constantly plugged in contributes to us all wanting to see stuff as it happens. People are more likely to make quick travel decisions nowadays, but they don't want to make the wrong decisions, so they wait until the last minute, driving demand for the extreme transparency of current content. That's both a benefit and a curse. Our photographers used to get their A-list photos to us at the end of the season. Now they have to shoot, run home to edit, and get them to us that same day."
Lucky for Leroux — all of us really — those photos show WB's continued good skiing is something to celebrate during this Pacific Northwest winter of sorrow.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.