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What I Learned on the Ski Hill about Public Relations

Josh Cobden

Skis resting on wall

As an avid downhill skier, news that one of my teenage daughters was planning to get her ski instructor’s license could mean only one thing: I want in! To her horror, I registered and joined her for a three-day course. As expected, it was a fun and challenging experience on and off the mountain.  And yes, we both passed. But what I didn’t expect was that the three traits emphasized in the program — empathy, adaptability and trust — would be so transferable to my work as a public relations advisor. Let’s take a quick run down each trait.

Empathy: our first lesson at the mountain advised that a good ski instructor starts by putting herself in her students’ skis. The student might be nervous or even frightened by the idea of plunging down a mountain. Or confused by the gear and the lifts. Or completely out of their element by, well, the elements (it could be their first time on snow). The ski pro comes prepared to teach, but can reframe her lesson and approach by viewing the situation through her student’s goggles. Similarly, the PR pro must assess what her audience is feeling, needing and experiencing, and adjust her message accordingly. For example, the victims of a data breach that have had their personal information stolen don’t want to hear about the cost of the remedy, and they certainly don’t want their concerns trivialized; they want swift information, action, advice and an apology.  Similarly, a PR consultant’s client may be facing internal pressures and obstacles, so it’s vital that the solutions presented consider these challenges.

Adaptability: next, we learned just how unpredictable a ski lesson can be. Weather conditions can change. Equipment can fail. A student can take a wrong turn and become separated from the group. Things can go sideways on the mountain, fast. The ski pro must adapt, adjust, course correct, all while providing clear direction to her students. Similarly, a PR pro’s day can be highly unpredictable. External factors can lay the best laid communications plan to waste. World events can hijack the news cycle on launch day. A celebrity endorser’s skeletons can come rattling out of the closet. An ill-advised tweet can turn the public against a brand. The PR pro must rely on her good judgement, training and ability to assess, act and then reassess.

Trustworthiness: most importantly, the ski pro must establish trust. People who take ski lessons are typically new to the sport. And while every athlete must start somewhere, the novice skier confronts danger at every turn — literally. Altitude, pitch, speed and hazards of every kind abound. The consequence of misadventure in downhill skiing can be injury or death. A parent who delivers his child to a ski lesson does so trusting that the Duty of Care will be honored above all else. The PR pro, too, is also entrusted with something valuable and fragile: reputation. She must understand the things that an organization does that drive trust and harness them to create a powerful narrative (and if those things are lacking, be honest about changes that might be necessary). Our latest Proof Trust Index reveals serious cracks in the foundations of Canadians’ trust in organizations, leaders and information sources. But as worrisome as this is, the study also provides a trust-building playbook for organizations that are ready to seize the moment to stand out. The race to the bottom creates opportunities at the top.

After three days of focusing on empathy, adaptability and trust on the mountain, I walked away in heavy boots with a ski instructor card. And while I’m hopefully a better skier for it, the skills we practiced on the mountain definitely make me a better PR professional.

Father and daughter pose holding certificates and smiling for the camera

Father and daughter ski instructors.