Sometimes it’s the story behind the story that’s the real story.
In Columbia, Missouri last week, events came together to create a remarkable accomplishment for the people of Central Missouri — raising over a million dollars for relief efforts in tornado-ravaged Joplin. The town was leveled by the giant twister and rather than feel helpless, everyday people came together via social media to make a difference, guided by the steady hand of KOMU-TV.
Anybody who has worked charities knows that cash is the number one need in times of disaster. You can send all the food and clothing that you want, but nothing fixes things like money in the hands of responsible charities. As a board member of the Heart of Missouri United Way, Brent Beshore knew this. Beshore grew up in Joplin and immediately went into action. The owner of Museao, a contemporary event hall in Columbia, Beshore created a Facebook group called “Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery,” and planned a fund raising event at Museao for Thursday night.
KOMU-TV, which was deep into wall-to-wall online coverage of the disaster, worked with Beshore to transform the event into a telethon, with just 3 days of planning. Beshore’s local business connections helped garner corporate “matching” donations, and before the event even started, they had raised in excess of $400,000.
KOMU’s Jen Lee Reeves took over handling Beshore’s Facebook page (and on her own time) and wrote of her efforts for MediaShift. She told me that the newsroom’s natural response was to want to help, and that’s exactly what they did.
…we offered support to our viewers and outlets for their sorrow – we found legitimate resources and organizations that were giving support to victims. KOMU was closer to the damage in Joplin and we knew we could partner up with organizations that could make an immediate impact in the recovery of the city. Our messages in social media just helped increase our efforts – I kept my ears on the “ground” and could help inform our audience faster and more efficiently thanks to our social efforts.
KOMU-TV anchor Sarah Hill and University of Missouri graduate/producer Robert Kessler set out to create the content for the telethon, and everybody who works for the station pitched in. Plans were altered when yet another tornado hit the town of Sedalia, 50 miles west of Columbia, so the fundraiser was tweaked to include them, and the work continued. KOMU-TV news director Stacey Woelfel picks it up from there:
As the program started, we got a lot more phone traffic than we expected. People were having trouble getting in, so they had to try many times. At the telethon site, we were getting a lot of big corporate and group donations, so the number went up quickly. We were live in all four locations–telethon open house, Joplin, Sedalia, and studio–moving back and forth pretty quickly. As the :45 minute mark hit, we decided to extend 30 more minutes so we could keep the phones ringing. The talent did a great job of making the plea but moving things forward still, and the dollars kept coming in. Once into the 8 o’clock hour, we decided to push through to 9. Talent filled again and not long before 9, we hit the million dollar mark. We ended up airing a telethon-centered 9 pm CW newscasts on both CW and NBC, ending the telethon at the end of that. In all, the producer and the talent helped us stretch a planned one hour telethon to two and a half hours.
The latest total from the event is an incredible $1,163,962. If there were records kept of such things, I’m sure this would be one. It is truly a remarkable accomplishment for Mr. Beshore, KOMU-TV and the people and businesses of mid Missouri. As of today, the Facebook page has over 171 thousand fans, another amazing achievement.
Ms. Hill told me via email that the key to the whole endeavor is and was social media. “There’s no other way,” she wrote, “that a community our size could raise more than a million dollars in 3 days.”
Many of the initial donations according to the Heart of Missouri United Way were online out of state…which means people were either watching our livestream of the telethon, seeing it on Brent’s FB page or seeing it on our FB page or twitter. We sent out a You Tube preview link to the telethon via social media 24 hours before the event and hundreds of people shared it on their Facebook walls (that doesn’t count twitter). We also sent out via social media a link to a music video that aids Joplin and more than 8000 have shared that link. I wouldn’t be surprised if the United for Joplin fundraiser eventually hits $2M. There is a music group called “The Co” that is working with MTV and others to donate the proceeds of a special song download to Joplin relief. The “telethon” is over but social media is fueling even more momentum and bringing in the dollars a full four days after the actual event. In fact, there is now a “virtual ongoing United for Joplin event” going on Facebook right now.
News director Woefel said they just did what a local television station can do best, “delivered humanized stories about the loss and the need for help through locally-involved anchors who really cared about what they were talking about.”
We didn’t try to run the phone bank or handle incoming pledges or reach out to the business community for those large donations you must have. We let our other partners do that and that’s what led to the success. I would also give a lot of credit to Sarah as the lead anchor on the project. Clearly she cared about what we were raising money for and that passion helped make it work.
Social media is the great new friend of the news business, and this is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how a TV station deeply connected in its community took advantage of its involvement in social media to really make a difference where and when it counted. KOMU-TV has set the bar high, and my hat’s off to them.