I look up to mountain guides. Literally. I've climbed rock, ice and alpine routes all over the world, following the leads of such terrific guides as Art Mooney, Miles & Liz Smart, Mark Chauvin and the incomparable Vern Tejas.
So, when Betsy Winter, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association recently asked me to discuss branding, marketing and crisis communications with the board, I was only too happy to oblige.
While the AMGA prides itself in providing exceptional climbing experiences as the "premier source for training, credentials, resource stewardship and services for U.S. guides and instructors," they face a few image and reputation challenges:
1) The media rarely call for comment, except in the aftermath of a climbing fatality.
2) Individual members rarely plug their AMGA certification or the need for more certified AMGA guides in order to ensure safe climbing.
So, I walked the board (all dressed as if they were ready to lead a nine pitch climb up one of the Gunks' legendary walls, BTW) through a branding and crisis primer this past Sunday afternoon.
I explained that media objectivity has become something of an oxymoron thanks to downsizing, the rise of younger, lower paid, less objective journalists and the voracious appetite of the 24×7, 'if it bleeds, it leads' media beast.
I told them it was their responsibility to shape positive stories and position themselves as thought leaders who could be ongoing sources for such stories as outdoor vacations, fitness, and preserving our remaining wilderness and parks, etc. I told these aggressive, mountain men and women it was time to focus some of that same can-do spirit into generating positive press for the AMGA.
I also walked them through the basics of crisis communications, the importance of admitting fault (if true) and viewing every crisis, no matter how bad, as an opportunity to reinforce the AMGA safety principles (since most accidents occur when climbers attempt foolish routes without a certified AMGA guide to lead them).
West Coast guide Mark Chauvin may have asked the best question of the session when he sighed and said, 'Steve, how do I get the media to stop calling me ONLY after accidents occur and start calling me to talk about the many great aspects of climbing?"
I responded by demonstrating the ways in which to build a story, the critical importance of data and trends, and discussing the media's infatuation with human interest stories. I suggested he lead climbs of interested groups who, perhaps, might be comprised of cancer survivors, the sight challenged or even wounded warriors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Provide a lazy, local reporter with a neatly tied feature package like that and you'll receive a positive article in return, I promised.
Finally, I answered the board's fundamental question about why so many member guides aren't participating in the AMGA's publicity efforts. I responded by saying: “You've got to answer their ‘What's in it for me?’ question.” When a call comes into AMGA headquarters from a national reporter, I said, suggest he or she also interview one or more of your certified guides. Then merchandise those results back to ALL members. Once they see their peers being quoted in an AMGA feature, member guides will be only too happy to mention the AMGA the next time a local reporter calls them.
And, what did I charge for this advice? Some branded merchandise, of course. And, Betsy Winter obliged by handing over a sweet AMGA-branded climbing jacket. That's when I made my offer to the entire board: “Call me anytime you have a question or find yourself knee deep in a media crisis. I'll be only too happy to help as long as there's some SWAG headed my way.” Hey, everyone has a price. Even Repman.