By Hans Ludwig
There’s a saying in the PR game that there’s no such thing as bad press, in which case Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort shouldn’t mind the publicity. But this evolving story features petulance, nepotism and the en mass firings of veteran ski patrollers, and the Scurfield family—owners of the resort, which is located within Banff National Park, in Alberta—is not pleased with the resulting fallout.
To recapitulate: In December, SSV’s on-mountain management butted heads with ownership over the disciplining of a young patroller who caught the owner’s son skiing in a closed area. Said head-butting then reportedly resulted in the firings of the mountain manager, the snow safety director, a senior patroller, and the head of lift operations. The patroller who caught Taylor Scurfield skiing on the wrong side of the rope was also fired later, which then led to a no-show protest from many other employees, followed by more firings on the hill, and more media attention, both on ski-centric web outlets and mainstream media like the Calgary Herald. (See 65,600 related Google siftings here.)
Sunshine Village’s reaction to the wrongful dismissal suit filed by the fired employees didn’t do much in the way of damage control: SSV claimed the firings weren’t triggered by the December incident, but rather a long pattern: “sexual harassment, dishonesty, fraud, soliciting gifts, conducting private business for profit at the ski resort, and insubordination,” according to a legal statement of defense filed by SSV in response to the lawsuit. But those earlier incidents cited things like a swimsuit calendar in a work area and a beer stash for patrol, things that sound more like a cobbled-together pile than a reason to fire senior employees who had been there for decades.
In a reply to the statement of defense, the fired SSV employees described those allegations as “recent inventions and fabrications,” and claimed that they had been routinely given raises and bonuses, which, if true, doesn’t exactly support SSV’s thesis that a 30-year veteran snow-safety manager had built a “culture of corruption, antagonism and intimidation.”
At any rate, the abrupt downsizing wasn’t too well-received among the ski community at large, where snow safety supervisors and senior patrollers tend to be highly respected. So bored and surly skiers in cubicles and coffee shops typed their reactions in the comments section of news articles, on Facebook pages, blogs, and on forums like the ones at TGR and Telemarktalk.
The comments, not surprisingly, included everything from angry muttering to outright scorn directed toward SSV and the Scurfield family. But if the Scurfield’s lawyers are to be believed, comments on TGR’s forum went far enough to constitute legally actionable libel.
And the chatter on TGR must have redlined the Google Alert system in the Sunshine PR department because a cease-and-desist letter from the resort’s lawyers was beamed in from Canada to TGR’s office next to the tram building in Jackson, Wyo. And it made the (not exactly big budget) management at TGR jumpy enough that they pulled the offending thread (which remains accessible on Google’s internet archive).
A C&D letter is not a lawsuit, but it’s a threat; even if TGR is within their rights, the cost of defending a prolonged suit could bankrupt a small company long before a court decision arrives. A number of states have adopted laws to protect defendants from lawsuits known as SLAPP’s—Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—and designed to intimidate public criticism. But Wyoming is not one of those states. Hence the pulled thread (ironically, probably the only one in the history of the TGR forums to feature members actually defending patrollers for cracking down on out of bounds skiers).
“This is not the first time we have received a cease-and-desist and had to work through things,” says Todd Jones, founder of TGR. “However, Sunshine Village has money to burn and is willing to threaten people with lawsuits and spend money on them to get what they want. TGR cannot sustain a large lawsuit.”
SLAPP suits have become an increasingly common way for powerful organizations like McDonald’s, Nationwide Title, and the Church of Scientology to silence critics, but SSV should get the credit for bringing this dubious innovation to the ski world. Sunshine may have a case: If they can provide convincing evidence that there has been deliberate or reckless falsehoods posted on the TGR forums. But that’s a pretty high bar to clear, legally speaking, despite the fact that deliberate and reckless falsehoods are what passes for friendly small talk among forum members (before they move on to the mom jokes).
Still, this will be a cold comfort to the staff of TGR if they all have to get jobs in the rental shop at Teton Village Sports next winter. Jones notes another irony: “Our audience is made up of Sunshine Village's potential customers. This is the targeted group they need to be communicating with. Instead they are attempting to silence them and buy their way out of their issues.”
From Jones’ perspective, “Most major corporations now face the same issue where people talk negatively about their products. This is the new reality. We take heat all the time from people for things we do. People rip on our films. They put us down for changes we make to the site. This is the reality. You can create website or blog in less than 15 minutes. Every website in the world has the same potential voice and traffic as any other site. You can't contain the general public's opinion anymore.”
While Sunshine did manage to get the offending TGR thread pulled, it was hardly the damage control the resort was looking for, as the move simply re-ignited the issue in other locations on the net. Actually, supporters of the fired employees went on the offensive, launching a website, sunshinevillagewatch.com, and Facebook pages to back the patroller’s cause. At this point, it’s probably not possible to send enough cease-and-desist letters to shut down the public conversation on the net, and the threats have given the story a new life with the press.
TGR has told Powder.com that they plan “to defend the site’s right to host this content via our attorney.” Let’s hope they succeed. Not because the content of one forum thread is vital to the situation at Sunshine, but because, as Jones says, “If anyone with a lawyer friend can write a cease-and-desist letter and suppress public opinion, then we will lose one of the great places for freedom of speech and expression in the snow industry.”
In the bigger picture Sunshine is just another ski resort, but we’re all screwed if we can’t talk and type freely about companies that actually affect our lives, like, say, the one that just spilled billions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Or Halliburton, or Goldman Sachs, or Citigroup. And if every media outlet and web hosting service had to sanitize controversial “content” to stay in business, the Jaded Local would have to go back to cranking rental bindings too.
In the interest of ski-journalistic ethics, it’s worth noting that the Scurfields may well be getting the short end of the stick here. Maybe all the firings were justified, maybe there were damaging falsehoods on TGR. But there’s no denying that they’ve just about fallen all over themselves to look as bad as possible. Ironically, someone in the upper management at Sunshine Village seems to be taking Jones’ advice: Sunshine is currently advertising for a PR/Social Media position. But I think I’d rather crank rental bindings.