Hurricanes, Hype, and Winter Storm Naming Headaches

Oct 8, 2012

By: Daniel Teigman, Business Writer and Analyst

Sometimes things work out for a reason and I love it!

Last week, my colleague, Amanda Williams, was kind enough to get me a gift following her attendance at the annual Advertising Week conference in New York.

It’s said the best gifts of all are the ones you don’t expect, and this one certainly delivered. I’m now the proud owner of a royal blue Weather Channel umbrella! Maybe I’ll even get mistaken for an on-camera meteorologist? (On second thought, nah, too short.) You see, I used to love that darned channel, but lately our relationship has grown stormy. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Nevertheless, owning a piece of their merchandise is a symbolic reminder of the channel I once cherished. Today, as a PR professional, I also recognize the show’s communications power and reach.

But the umbrella gift happened to coincide with some major Weather Channel news (yes, such happenings do occur) that raises important PR issues. The Weather Channel, (TWC), which has for years been upgrading its social media and “infotainment” component, announced on Wednesday, October 3 that it will begin naming ferocious winter storms as they do tropical systems starting this 2012-2013 season. While the move is being done ostensibly to increase awareness and prep time, and much of the Wednesday 10-11 p.m. live broadcast was dedicated to giving this decision the most positive spin, the skeptic in me focused on TWC’s online article’s last sentence:

“Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users.”

Reading between the lines and that last sentence seems more about “increased revenue and engagement.” The question is, to what extent is TWC’s naming decision about driving audience and revenue versus truly helping educate viewers about impending storms? I mean it’s not like local news fails to report every minute detail of every minor and major storm — named or otherwise. In the age of social media and 24/7 mobile news, will naming winter storms really help preparedness? I doubt it.

I was a proud (maybe too proud) Long Islander for 30 years. And my last New York winter in 2010-2011 was quite the barrel of snow, ice and slush. Back in the “dark ages” of 2010, I didn’t think I was lacking news coverage of storm after storm. And I can promise you regional and national coverage was sufficient enough to guarantee a lack of milk at all area King Kullen’s and drive through Dairy Barns. (Localisms – look ‘em up.)

Also, with these names only being coined by TWC, with no official status like the National Hurricane Center that christens tropical systems, who cares that they’re naming them to begin with? All we’ll have is more hype and more headaches. Not less.

I used to be a big Weather Channel nerd. Heck, at one point I could have told you the program’s morning lineup and the names of on-camera meteorologists. (I miss ya, Bob Stokes.) But their product continues to get watered down and quality has lost out to pre-programmed drama series content. Except under the most tangential argument, what does the drama series “Coast Guard Alaska,” have to do with forecasting the weather? “The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety,” said AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers in a statement.

The naming scheme, combined with a clear change in programming direction following the company’s acquisition by NBC, Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, underscores a profoundly different marketing message.

The PR point: when you’re a household brand like The Weather Channel, age 30, it’s important not to overly tinker with your identity. Granted, it’s important not to become pigeonholed, and attracting new audiences are key to any company’s long-term survival.  But by so joining the social media and infotainment crowd, stoking viewership with named-storm sensationalism is the height of foolishness. Thirty years ago The Weather Channel was a true technology and communications trend setter, launching what was then called by on-camera meteorologist Bruce Edwards “the non-ending weather telethon.” Today they’re just sellouts and that’s a marketing no-no.

It turns out that The Weather Channel’s naming convention is a mix of Greek gods and goddesses and pop-cultural references. First one at bat: Athena – the Greek Goddess of wisdom.

Lets hope that Athena turns out to be an appropriate name and that TWC’s actions are wise and really helps people prepare for winter’s worst.

I think I’ll stay put in Miami as I look forward to the post-hurricane season.

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