Monday, December 7, 2009

It's the weather, stupid!

'Tis the season!  It's snowy in Colorado, not so much of a blizzard, but certainly cold and enough of the white stuff has fallen to make the daily commutes a nightmare of wipeouts and traffic jams.  What does the weather have to do with public relations, you might ask?  Well, as it turns out, a lot.

I've been asked so many times why the media has such a fascination with the weather I just started writing it down on a card and I keep a bunch of them with me to hand out whenever I'm at a party or any other social events.  Weather is important.  It matters to everyone.  It determines how you plan your drive to work, what you wear, it impacts your fun time as well.  And yet I continue to hear numerous complaints about the amount of time local news channels dedicate to weather coverage. 

Let me say this; I agree that it sometimes can be overkill, but trust me, newsrooms have learned hard lessons over the years.  When local newschannel don't adequately cover the weather, they are universally derided and actually lose viewers.  Weather coverage is appointment viewing.  I know people who rarely watch the news, but will make a point to catch the weather forecast every day. 

Therefore it shouldn't be a surprise when newsrooms muster all their resources for weather coverage when it turns bad, or even dangerous.  It's the same in New York, Miami, Denver, Dallas, Topeka, Omaha...well, you get the point. 

Not too long ago, I was having drinks with some former colleagues and talking about, what else, the weather.  One of my friends, a current assignment editor, complained that his station had spent way too much time reporting on a storm that never came.  He's a transplant from L.A. and didn't understand the fascination with weather coverage we had out here in the Mountain Time Zone.  At that point, a grizzled, veteran photojournalist said something that made the rest of us nod in unanimous approval and recognition.  He said simply "Blizzard of '82."  It was a timely, and supremely relevant comment.

For those of you not in the know, I'll give you the cliff notes.  On Christmas eve, 1982 the Denver-metro area was blasted by a blizzard that blanketed the area with approximately five feet of snow, more in some areas.  I was 12 years old.  I remember it well.  Mostly I remember going outside and playing in snowdrifts much taller than me.  I remember thinking that I'd never seen so much snow in my life.  I also remember that the blizzard is generally regarded as the reason popular Denver Mayor Bill McNichols lost his re-election bid the following year.  It was a PR disaster for his administration.  The city wasn't prepared.  Streets remained unplowed, transportation and emergency services were severely handicapped for days after the blizzard.  Anything that could have gone wrong for Mayor McNichols did go wrong.  People died during the blizzard, not completely unusual in a blizzard of that magnitude, but McNichols drew the brunt of the blame. 

To be fair, however, no one, well, almost no one, imagined that the Christmas Eve storm would dump as much snow on the city as it did.  Denver gets snow, we all know this.  But any native will tell you that snow also melts very quickly in a state that gets over 300 days of sunshine  a year.  McNichols could have, and probably would have, been forgiven had he not made one serious PR blunder. 

During a news conference two days after the blizzard, McNichols came across as defensive and even heartless when responding to reporter questions.  When asked why the city wasn't prepared for the storm, or why Denver didn't have more snowplows, McNichols responded by saying that Denver didn't need more plows, calling the blizzard a "once in a generation" storm.  He continued by saying that buying more plows would be a waste of money for a city already financially strapped. 

As you might guess, his comments didn't go over well with the residents of Denver, most of whom were trapped inside their homes.  It's not so much that what McNichols said wasn't true.  The problem was really in his timing and in how he said it.  Days after a crippling blizzard isn't the time to discuss city finances.  It's the time to apologize and focus on fixing the situation.  Leave the discussion about extra plows or "once in a generation blizzards" for a later time, after the raw emotions have been soothed a bit.  To this day, I know individuals who seethe at the mere mention of McNichols name, precisely because of that single incident.

Another amazing thing happened in the aftermath of that blizzard, the emergence of weatherman as celebrity.  A man named Stormy Rottman (really, that was his on air name) was the only local weatherman who warned that the storm had the potential drop massive amounts of snow on the city.  While others cheerfully welcomed a white, but mild, Christmas, Rottman was preaching to what at the time must have felt like an empty wilderness.  As it turns out, the wilderness wasn't empty at all.  The masses took notice.  In a blink, Rottman became the most respected weatherman in town and his station, Channel 9 News, became a local news powerhouse.  Viewers remembered his accurate forecast and responded by making him, and his station, the most watched cast in town. 

One blizzard, 48 hours and several PR blunders later, the landscape of Denver had changed dramatically.  The storm ushered in a new era in Denver politics and made a newstation a force to be reckoned with.  Ask anyone in any newsroom across the country and they'll all say the same thing.  Weather coverage has the ability to make or break a traditional, local news agency.  Do it well and you'll keep your viewers, readers and listeners.  Do it poorly and you'll start losing them in droves.

So it should be no surprise that when the storms come, you can find every news station live on the scene, with reporters in the field and every A-block filled with traffic reports, weather forecasts and dramatic shots of wet, icy or snowy roads.  In an era when newsrooms are struggling to keep budgets under control by reducing resources, you can bet that they'll still throw everything they have at even the hint of a storm snarling up the daily lives of their audience.

What This Means To You!

How does this affect my small business or non profit organization, you ask?  Simply put, you are at the mercy of the weather gods.  I tell clients this one simple thing every time I talk about a pitch.  No matter how good a pitch is, no matter how good the story is, you will always take a back seat to major breaking news, including weather. 

When you're putting a pitch together, keep a few things in mind: 

1. Make sure there aren't any major pre-planned events taking place.
Recently I worked with a client who wanted to do an event the week of Columbus Day celebrations in Denver.  In other cities, this may not have been an issue, but in Denver, Columbus Day parades eventually turn into made-for-tv protests and near riots.  I knew that there was a serious chance their event would be upstaged by any potential Columbus Day disruption, so we moved the date of their event.

Any major news event will take precedent over other good local stories.  Scan the news, know what's going on in your community and make sure there aren't other stories that might use of newsroom resources.  If a newsroom has to choose between a story that they KNOW will get them good visuals and grab the interest of their audience, or a story that might turn out to be better, newsrooms will almost always go with the story they know. 

2.  Watch the weather forecast.  
If there is a chance that a storm will pass through on the day you have your story or event planned, consider changing it up.  I had been doing crisis work for a major national grocery chain a few years ago and we knew that it would be a big story when the DEA finally made their announcement.  We were prepared, we had our talking points down, our collateral material was in place and all the internal support structure had been activated.  All we had to do was wait for the government's announcement.  It would be the single largest fine ever levied against a U.S. company by the DEA.  It was a juicy story, involving drugs, death and corruption in a family grocery store chain. 

The day came, the announcement was made, and we geared up for an onslaught of media requests and coverage.  As it turns out, at the same time the announcement was being made, reports were coming in from Louisiana that a hurricane was just hours from landfall in the U.S. Gulf Coast.  It was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. since Katrina and all news eyes were focused on the hurricane instead of us.  The story was reported, but only as a short reader lost somewhere in the middle of the newscasts.  We had only one follow up story and then it was over.  In this case the weather helped us, but it illustrates the power of weather and its effect on the news.

3.  Be prepared.  
If you pitch a story and it gets overshadowed by either another major breaking news story or a weather event, be patient.  A good story can always find quality news coverage if you are persistent.  It might mean finding another angle to pitch at a later date, or rescheduling your event.  Whatever you do, don't get angry or frustrated.  If a station has to cancel coverage they previously agreed to, work with them.  Don't insist that they follow through with their coverage.  If you do, one of two things will happen.  They'll either cancel the coverage completely, or they'll send out a photographer and bury your story somewhere in the middle of the newscast with as little time alottment as possible.

Either way, it's likely you'll burn bridges in that newsroom and you'll have a hard time dealing with them in the future.  If it's a good enough story, reporters will come back to you and you can work out future coverage.  You might even end up with better coverage than originally planned.

Timing is crucial to garnering quality news coverage for your organization.  Knowing when to pitch, when to make follow up phone calls and what other events might impact the coverage of your story will not only allow you to make better decisions when pitching a newsroom, but it will also earn you more respect from journalists and they will be more likely to work with you in the future.

Coming up, I'll talk more about pitch timing and follow up and how your timing can make friends or enemies for life. 

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