$1,000,000 in 3 days via social media

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.

fundraising Facebook page

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.

Sarah HillMs. 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.

Tornadoes on TV can’t compare to the real thing

the tornado I sawThe historic tornado outbreak in the South last week captivated my attention as I’m sure it did everyone’s. Watching James Spann of ABC/33–40 in Birmingham cover the storms and keep people safe via Ustream demonstrated his brilliance once again and reminded me of how far we’ve come as broadcasters in our ability to cover storms live. Much has already been written about that, but the coverage also reminded me of something else: how my whole world changed as a 9-year old boy back home in Michigan when a killer EF-5 tornado came calling.

We’ve come such a long way in our technology that we can sit in the comfort of our homes and watch incredible videos like the ones we saw last week. When I was a boy, however, that was unthinkable. What we have are memories.

So I did a little searching and found a treasure trove of memories and pictures via the National Weather Service office in Grand Rapids, my old home town. I told Karen that the most amazing thing to me about looking back is how vivid the memories are. This was 55 years ago, and I can remember it like it was last week (Old farts don’t remember anything “like it was yesterday,” not even yesterday).

The date was April 3, 1956. I was in the fourth grade at Oakdale Elementary School in the city’s southeastern section. We lived on a very short street called Alto Avenue. Despite the size of our block, over 40 kids lived there, and we were a very active neighborhood. Much of the activity took place in a large field in back of our house. That field was a buffer between our neighborhood and the C&O Railroad tracks that ran north and south at the far side of the field. In our backyard, the view was due west, and on the other side of the tracks a few hundred yards away was another neighborhood.

My two brothers and I went to school that day like every other morning, although it was exceptionally hot for early April. Everything was normal until the school office announced that the Weather Bureau had issued a tornado watch and that we were going home early. I remember walking home about lunchtime in the sun and heat. We were all pointing at the sky laughing and saying, “There’s a tornado. No, there’s one.” To us, it was a free afternoon off.

the sky I sawMy father came home from work a little after four, and he was talking about the coming storms. We used to have a coal furnace, so we had a small room in the basement in the southwest corner that used to be where we stored coal. It had been transformed into our air raid/storm shelter (a must for the 50s), and that’s where he wanted us to go when the storm came.

We went to the backyard, and I had my first sense of awe and wonderment. The sky was an eerie green color and the clouds looked like they were upside down. It was so quiet, and I was both frightened by it yet drawn to it. Then, the air raid sirens went off. These sirens usually only went off during drills. On top of every school, the howls of their warnings reverberated through neighborhood after neighborhood, as they went round and round and crossed each other’s sound paths in a terrifying signal that all was not well. Green sky. Stillness. Upside down clouds. Sirens.

My mother shuddered. “Get in the basement,” my father ordered.

We all scrambled downstairs and turned on the radio. The tornado was west of us, moving to the northeast. My mother was scared, but I was drawn to the danger. I snuck out of the room and headed back upstairs. I looked out the kitchen window into the backyard, and there was my father, staring to the west. The sky was a very dark green, but bright sunlight was beginning to peer through the very horizon. I pushed the back door open and headed into the back yard.

the tornado I sawWhat I saw is forever etched in my mind. The sky to the west was completely black. We were east-northeast of the storm, so it had the appearance of the whole sky lifting and revealing sunlight as it grew closer. The funnel appeared to be miles across when the sky first began “lifting,” but as it got closer, the wedge was clearly visible, and it moved across the horizon from left to right. We were miles away, but the thing was enormous. I was scared but mesmerized by the thing. Its magnetism froze me in place. Visions of The Wizard of Oz flashed through my mind, as I stood there paralyzed. It was pitch black and revolving with the sunlight beaming in from behind it, as if the curtain of dark clouds had sprung a leak, spilling its contents through this funnel. At that point, I learned later, it was destroying Standale, Michigan, and killing people along the way.

My father turned and saw me and yelled for me to get back to the basement. He was right behind me.

We huddled in the storm cellar, listened to reports on WOOD radio, and waited for the all-clear sirens. When it finally went back into the sky, the tornado had traveled 52 miles on the ground, killing 17 people.

I didn’t sleep very well that night, and a couple of days later, we drove through what used to be Standale. I don’t think much about that trip, for the destruction was too real, but that tornado — that Svengali-like monster — called to me every night for a very long time. The feelings of that day remain with me today. It created the door through which I passed en route to a lifetime in the news business — television news, where I spent many days and nights helping warn people about the very thing that haunted me.

And last week, while watching live video of powerful twisters as they destroyed everything in their paths, there were flashes of being 9-years old again and in the backyard with my father, participating in something I hope never to do again. Today’s curious 9-year olders can search YouTube. They can also find the real deal on shows about storm chasers and the like. But I’m not sure video can ever really capture what it’s like to go through one of those things, and I’m grateful for that.

(More great pictures of the April 3, 1956 Michigan tornado via Flickr)

The Weather Channel’s Strategic Blunder

The Weather ChannelFor the past two weekends, the southeast has experienced severe weather, along with tornadoes and associated deaths. On each of the Friday nights — when warnings and watches were in place in the region — The Weather Channel chose to stick with a new strategic move, the showing of weather-related movies. It’s an attempt to garner ratings and revenue, but the popular (during severe weather) cable channel is risking its brand altogether in so doing. It’s a lesson in the loss of brand focus.

This is, of course, very good news for local broadcasters, because The Weather Channel had been posing a serious threat to the local weather franchise, the most important franchise in nearly every market. The Weather Channel’s blunder here is going to go down in history as one of the most talked about strategic marketing errors since New Coke, and I can’t imagine it’ll last very long.

Mike James, editor of the popular Newsblues website, has been biting and relentless in his criticism of the move.

The Weather Channel is about profit. It’s about reducing the enormous debt that threatens the financial integrity of NBC Universal. It’s about iPad and iPhone apps. It’s about cross-platform promotions. It’s about interactivity and satellite distribution. It’s about synergy and Hulu’s’ and Fancast Xfinity.

Weather? We don’t need no stinkin weather. We got movies. We got news coverage of President Obama signing the health care initiative. But most of all, we got debt. In March, TWCC Holding Corp., the financial entity that owns The Weather Channel, refinanced its $1.3 billion term loan.

And while corporate NBCU (now Comcast?) tries to handle the debt it sustained when purchasing The Weather Channel, AR&D Senior Strategist and expert in local weather Jim Willi, says they’re actually shooting themselves in the foot.

After two decades of building the strongest, most recognized brand in weather, the Weather Channel, in my opinion, is on some misguided mission that is going to irreparably harm that brand. The Weather Channel has been a clearly positioned brand — they cover severe weather like no one else. You can tune in anytime for a look at weather across the country, and the local forecast on the 8’s.

Our research — for years — has shown the Weather Channel to be a strong weather force in most every local market in the country. They sometimes become the third choice for local weather if there is a weak #3 station. They always get votes for a station to turn to for severe weather. Now they want to be known for movies?

Besides movie nights — they also seem bent on having other taped weather programs from their meteorologists. That too is off brand in my opinion. The Weather Channel is all about convenience for viewers. If I want the weather 24 hours a day I tune to the weather channel. Well, that isn’t the case anymore. With local TV stations using a digital channel more and more for 24 hour weather — they could eventually make the national Weather Channel irrelevant — unless they get back on brand.

Jim CantoreThis past Friday night, while The Weather Channel showed the film “Wind,” people were actually killed by tornadoes. Jim Cantore, the face of The Weather Channel and an advocate for severe weather coverage, got in trouble over a couple of tweets. On Friday night at 5:20pm, he wrote:

TWC is NOT doing movie night tonight. They are staying LIVE to cover SVR WX Outbreak.”

Cantore was in Louisville for NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby the following day and was misinformed, prompting this tweet at 10:32pm:

I want to apollogize (sic) to all of you. I was SEVERELY misled. Was told we were bagging the ‘movie’ to do what this network was created for.”

According to Newsblues’ James, this resulted in a telephone tongue lashing and will be dealt with later.

Cantore can be excused for his anger. He’s a hardcore weather guy with a long history of chasing severe weather. Residents along the coast have given him the nickname “The Angel of Death.” When Cantore shows up, ugly weather isn’t far behind. He’s a member of both the National Weather Association and the American Meteorological Society, and he holds the AMS Television Seal of Approval.

But he’s also come to symbolize NBC-Universal’s formula for taking something successful then multi-platforming it into a cloying unwatchable mess. He’s covered Space Shuttle launches, the “Winter X Games,” PGA tournaments, and NFL games, none of which have much to do with weather. He’s a regular on the “Today” show.

Somebody is going to have to wake up at NBCU and see what’s really happening here, or The Weather Channel will cease to be a force in either the online or on-air universe. It’s a horrible blunder to show movies in times of crisis and another example of what happens when managers put profit above serving the people formerly known as the audience.

You can bitch and moan all you want about stations interrupting programming for severe weather, but if you want to be taken seriously by people in the community as a place to turn to in times of emergencies, then performance when the chips are down means everything. The Weather Channel appears to have forgotten that.

There’s an old saying in marketing that it’s hard to take something away from a market leader. Sometimes you just have to wait until they make a mistake. This is certainly one of those times.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)