A storm about naming storms

If you read this blog, you are no doubt already aware that The Weather Channel (TWC) announced today it will give names to winter storms this year. The reaction from the meteorological community has been broad and quite loud, if not completely unanimous. OU doctoral candidate Patrick Marsh summed up the early sentiment – and telegraphed the overall reaction throughout the day – very early this morning with this update:

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On its face, the idea of naming storms is not without merit. TWC makes a decent prima facie case in their announcement:

  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  • In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  • A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.

While the value behind these – especially the third one (we stopped giving all hurricanes female names in part for this reason) – may be up for some debate, it is difficult to argue the validity of them. Of course, that’s mostly because there is little actual data or evidence available to either support or refute any of this information. So, when TWC’s new winter weather expert Tom Niziol claims, “Naming winter storms will raise awareness, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact on the public overall”, we simply have to take his word for it that it’s a good thing and hope the parallels to naming tropical storms and hurricanes – which we have been doing for decades for many of the very same reasons – hold up.

But make no mistake about it: This is not only, or even primarily, about raising awareness about storms or reducing the impact on the public.

A nuclear bomb of marketing

Sure, calling that next winter storm by a proper name will get people talking, and that will help ensure a high awareness of winter storms. Then again, is that ever a problem? No, and this is more about marketing and branding than improving weather communication with the public, and TWC tips their hand in the fourth bullet above when they mention social media. For the last few years now, social media users have used hurricane names in hashtags to help share information about them, and they’ve done the same – after a brief, usually organic process during which a name is settled upon – for winter storms. I don’t know whether this is the proverbial “chicken” or the “egg”, but from a marketing standpoint, it is hard to argue anything but the brilliance of this move. TV stations and other media outlets have been “branding” their coverage for ages, and this is a great way for TWC to preemptively brand winter storms going forward – and shape the weather conversation around their branding.

This hasn’t stopped one marketing professional from making the argument that this is bad, to which I say, “sour grapes”. The media marketing community has long been less interested in the quality of the content and communication with how well something is branded or packaged. (Hence the number of local TV stations who show you their “Super Amazing Mega Radar Doppler Dual-Pol 35,000″ every time they can, even when there’s nothing there to see.) From a purely marketing standpoint, this is nothing short of a nuclear bomb of branding: TWC went somewhere no one has gone (or thought of going) before, and they’ve done so in a way that: (a) has already been successful at generating buzz (#rejectedTWCnames was trending nationally for a while on Twitter) (b) is likely to be at least somewhat successful when the storms come, and (c) has and will force everyone in the weather community to react to them. Unfortunately, as brilliant as it is from a marketing standpoint, there is more to this than just marketing, and nuclear bombs have a way of destroying more than the target.

Targets and collateral damage

In making this change unilaterally, The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window and their partners in the National Weather Service and other corners of the “weather community” under the bus. One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with “one voice”. That doesn’t mean everyone says the same thing; rather, it means those involved should speak in harmony with others. That’s hard to do when one member of the choir is singing their own song and won’t share the sheet music with everyone else. That’s essentially what TWC is doing here: By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny, they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along: “Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states.” In other words, they’re telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that “we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you’ll be the one causing confusion.”

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Some might very well call that – taking a decisive step toward what you believe is the right direction – leadership. It’s no secret that the National Weather Service, as most government entities, is very slow to change: One needs only to look at its ALL-CAPS text products to see that (although, as an aside, it sounds like at least one or two regions will be shifting to mixed case text products – finally – later this year). That said, if the concept of partnership within the weather community is to mean anything, the groups within the community must act like partners. Unfortunately, that appears not to have been the case today. WJLA Senior Meteorologist Bob Ryan writes, “…there was, from everything I have learned, NO coordination of this decision to name winter storms with the National Weather Service or any … professional groups”. If we are going to work together to build a Weather-Ready Nation, as TWC claims to be trying to do, we need strong leadership and a collaborative mindset. Leadership does not involve painting one’s partners into a corner, and collaborating partners do not surprise each other with major announcements.

Implications for local TV

In case they weren’t already, local TV station weather and news departments should be growing increasingly wary of The Weather Channel’s recent moves. TWC is very aware that mobile and social will play key roles in their – and our – futures, and they have taken a number of steps toward dominating those spaces. Their mobile apps are often one of the first third-party apps installed on mobile devices, and they have been very forward-thinking in using location-based marketing techniques to monetize those offerings. Further, they have been very aggressive in the social media space, going beyond simply reading Tweets and Facebook updates on the air to interacting and engaging with social users in order to bring them back to their core properties. Taking ownership of naming winter storms at a national level is another step toward engaging with social media users first, no doubt in hopes of diverting local TV eyeballs and clicks over to TWC and weather.com. It’s natural for TWC to want everyone in the marketplace to think of them first when it comes to weather – just like it is for local stations – and by asserting naming rights on high-impact, ratings-driving storms, they’ll take another step in that very direction and right on the toes of anyone who doesn’t want to play along, including, I suspect, many local TV stations.

When that first storm does gets named, local stations (and other national media outlets) will be forced to deal with viewers and website users who have watched TWC’s coverage or picked up the name from friends, co-workers, or fellow Facebook and Twitter users. Now is the time to decide – at an outlet-wide level – whether to adopt the name given the storm by TWC or ignore it partially or completely. Going along with the name will certainly provide a measure of consistency between the provider, TWC, and others who choose to use the name. However, it’s also an acceptance of TWC’s categorization of the storm and their assertion they have the authority to make that categorization for the broader community. Ignoring the name could potentially cause confusion (and will in any event reduce the consistency and harmony of communication for the end user), but it could be interpreted as a rejection of TWC’s authority to set the agenda and determine the vocabulary for the rest of us.

Final thoughts and predictions

As I began, I think the notion of naming winter storms isn’t a bad one. We’ve been naming hurricanes for decades, and there are certain advantages to applying the same model to winter storms. In a sense, we already do it retroactively – the “President’s Day storm”, “Snowtober”, “Snowmageddon”, etc. The Europeans have been doing it proactively for decades, as well. Quite frankly, as Patrick Marsh hinted early this morning, had The Weather Channel folks collaborated with their weather community partners on a plan to roll this out, this might be happening in a coordinated and widely-based way that is even more likely to aid the public. And they would not have strained their relationship with the rest of the weather community to get it done.

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In any event, five or ten years from now, I expect naming winter storms in the US will be commonplace. Hopefully by then, open, detailed, and peer-reviewed standards for what storms get named will have been developed. Ideally, the categorization and naming will be made by a more independent group. (That may be accelerated after the first time a “named storm” threatens but actually dodges or falls apart before hitting DC.)

In the meantime, The Weather Channel will take a beating when a named storm doesn’t live up to the hype it generates, especially if that storm was forecast to hit a heavily-populated area. I also predict they will catch some flack for not being as aggressive at naming a storm forecast to skip the those heavily-populated areas, even if they are diligent to avoid this possibility. That’s one big pitfall when you’re a ratings- and profit-driven entity setting the table for everyone else – there will be no shortage of critics. (Even the National Hurricane Center takes some grief in naming storms out in the Atlantic, and they don’t have the ratings or profit motives TWC has.)

Oh, and nine months after the first named winter storm that dumps a large amount of snow, there are going to be whole new batch of kids whose names are already on TWC’s list.

Full disclosure: I work at a local TV station, and while I personally enjoy watching The Weather Channel talk about big weather, we consider them competitors.

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About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist and Executive Producer at WRAL-TV. Lecturer at NC State. Panelist on WeatherBrains. Geek. (Opinions are mine only. C'mon, you think anyone else wants them?)
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20 Responses to A storm about naming storms

  1. nickjthorn says:

    Thank you for your well thought out reply to this asinine decision by The Weather Channel. Even though they named other reasons for their plan to name winter storms, their press release made this seem like it was purely a ratings and marketing decision.

    I whole-heartily agree with your sentiment about this decision marginalizing the local news stations and can relate:

    When I first moved to Iowa in 2010 from Dallas, Texas I desperately sought out a local news station that I could trust in order to get me the most accurate forecast for the coming winter months. Thankfully, one of the local stations did a professional job of explaining the winter weather patterns and being calm when a major storm moved through on Groundhog’s Day.

    Unfortunately, The Weather Channel over-generalized, over-hyped, and over-reacted to the storm. This did nothing to calm the nerves of this Texan when it came to a serious blizzard.

  2. Well written! I need to share this with my meteorologist colleagues. I’ve been very wary of TWC ever since they got bought by NBC Universal in the late 2000s. When they continued to show one of their Weather-Themed movies in the middle of a severe weather outbreak in April 2010 (“Flick and a Forecast?”, I think it was called?), their stock in my eyes took a nosedive.

  3. Jason_Elser says:

    Feel free to delete this but it’s my opinion.

    TWC’s decision to do this is a HUGE business risk on their part as it is not endorsed by NOAA and is going to cause great confusion as other TV media and radio along with the National Weather Service are completely left out of the loop on this for now.

    Personally, I see their decision to do this about like putting hubcaps on a tractor. It looks nice, but WHY???

    The only way I see something like this can be effective is if all media are involved and on the same page and it is taken up and done first by NOAA and the NWS.

  4. Terrific post Nate. be very interesting to see when and why they decide to roll out Athena. Be also interesting to see what NBC Nightly News says on-air when “Athena” has yet to form. Probably not what CBS News and ABC WNT will say about “forecasters say”

  5. Jim Marusak says:

    The big question, which one of the opinions state, is does The Weather Channel have this naming of winter storms copyrighted and/or trademarked. Because as a meteorologist that goes on the air for a bunch of radio stations here in the mid-west for a company other than TWC (Weather Eye Radio Network to be exact), And on occasion we have live calls with our client stations (some scheduled, some call when a bigger storm is forecast). And I have to admit I’d like a clarification from TWC on if a client station, what if I am asked a question. that uses TWC’s names? Am I allowed to use the names and/or refer to the names in the live call, or could me and my company get sued because of some incidental copyright, patent, or trademark infringement? I’ll be asking my bosses about this myself so that I don’t have one slip of the mouth putting me into bankruptcy (like an incidental slip of a fleeting curse word can cause now with an FCC fine). But this is a question that needs some clarification for me and others that work for other companies and rivals, like yourself.

  6. Ken Highley says:

    NBC10 in Philly tried this several years ago, for ONE year! They haven’t done this stupid idea since. It was a holie thing then, as it still is now. They busted every single storm that they named, it was a BIG FAIL. Instead of being worried about the forecast, they were concentrating on promos and graphics (in my opinion.) I say get the forecast correct, and your reputation will speak wonders….

    The first storm they name will happen because they want to do this new thing…then it won’t materialize as they said, everyone will say how dumb this is, and then nobody will listen to the warning about the next storm(s).

  7. As a marketer I thought this was a classic example of an organization “over-marketing” to the point of hurting the substance of the product it offers (in this case reliable forecasts with no agenda). Here’s my take on it: http://mghus.tumblr.com/post/32744875650/at-the-weather-channel-its-marketing-first-news

  8. Nate Johnson says:

    Jason: I don’t see it as much a business risk as it is a communication risk. From a business standpoint – and remember, their business is eyeballs, mouse clicks, and screen taps – it’s all good. They won’t just get to shape the conversation, they’ll be starting it by deciding when a storm is worthy of a name. The problem is that not everyone will adopt their name, and in some cases, may opt to call it something entirely different. They want to be “leading”, but they’re using their weight to bully the rest of us in the name of coordination and good, consistent communication.

    Bob: Apparently, the Al Roker video on the web page was made available to NBC affiliates on VOD, and at least a couple of them ran it last night or this morning during newscasts. Given the level of cross-promotion between NBC and TWC already, I fully expect the NBC-VOD packages to use TWC’s names. Whether Brian Williams, who is notorious for his occasional incredulity, uses the names remains to be seen.

    Jim: I think it’s quite the opposite: TWC wants you to use the name. They want to drive the conversation, and by (a) determining when to name a storm and (b) choosing that name, they’ll be doing just that. Anyone who adopts that name is endorsing, in a sense, TWC’s claim on the right to name storms.

    Chris: Thanks for commenting. I agree with your take – and your cynicism about east-coast storms getting named whereas a central Plains storm might not. My beef is that your commentary runs counter to nearly everything newsroom consultants – many of whom are brought in to help better market the product – have been telling us for years. There’s usually a good bit of overlap between effective science communication (which is what broadcast meteorologists and weather casters are doing!) and good marketing techniques, but whenever those two are at loggerheads, we’re “advised” to do what it takes to get those eyeballs onto the tube, good science communication be damned. There is a balance to be struck here – you have to have a good, interesting product and you have to package it so that people will come and see it. The greatest product with no eyeballs is not effective communication, after all. But TWC’s move is just taking the marketing consultants advice to the Nth degree, and to the extent that it aims to generate buzz, draw attention to TWC, and allow them to set the parameters for the conversation, it will be successful; and I worry that its success will filter down to local stations, whose marketing folks will begin advising us to brand even more heavily, throwing that balance way out of kilter.

  9. I spoke with Bryan Norcross at TWC yesterday, and when I asked if there was coordinate with the NWS I got a non-reply of “well, they’re a great organization that we love to work with, and we’re all a part of the weather community at large” blah blah blah. He told me that a winter storm affecting Northern Wisconsin would be less likely to be named than one affecting Chicago; not a surprise, but interesting that he’d admit as much– they only care about where the people are, and where the media coverage will be.

    As another note, they’re not the first to name storms. My station here in Green Bay has been naming storms since 1987; I believe it’s WFSB in Connecticut that’s been doing it since at least the 70s. And we at lest have explicit winter storm criteria; nothing subjective about when we do or do not name storms. The directive has already come down from higher-ups here that we will continue naming our own winter storms, and that we will not acknowledge TWC’s naming system.

    The local NWS office has expressed concern that this may cause confusion, and I agree. It’s going to be a mess. They’re opening up a can of worms here, but the problem is, they’re so big that I don’t think they care, and I really don’t think they necessarily need to care– not for their own sake, anyway.

    And BTW– Dairy Queen already jumped on the marketing train yesterday with a press release saying that they’ll give away free blizzards when a winter storm is named.

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  11. Jim Marusak says:

    I agree they’d like the publicity. But look at cases like apple/samsung over a simple thing of using rounded corners on a cell phone and all the patent suits the last several years dealing other industries, and I have to admit I’d like a bit of a clarification just to be sure I don’t hear anything after the fact. I know, maybe I’m overly cautious.

    As a side note, how much will larger competition like Accu-Weather and several other places take to this move? Especially with Joel Meyers lobbing in the past to try to get congress to privatize the weather service, especially for his company more than TWC? would he go along with TWC and potentially ceding the leadership in the private industry to them? or would he line up against TWC, start a naming war, and end up proving the point of Phil and others here about the potential for confusion in warnings correct, to the point of costing lives, forcing a bit more government regulation? Too bad I wasn’t at the upcoming NWA National Meeting in Madison next week and can’t make it to the AMS meeting in the big easy, as that should provide for more than interesting debate and discussion in the weather industry and the meteorological community in general.

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