Friday, February 8, 2013

On the naming of winter storms...

We typically stick to forecast discussions, pertinent weather news, and the sort on this blog, but occasionally we feel the need to editorialize a bit and this is one of those times.

I had a discussion with a fellow weather-lover and Twitter follower this morning about the naming of winter storms and since it's a hot topic right now, I thought I'd lay chime in so that everyone knows why you haven't heard a single winter storm name uttered from our lips.

First, I think it's brilliant marketing by The Weather Channel/NBC Universal to decide that "the time is right to introduce this concept."  Sure there was lots of justification for starting the practice of naming winter storms, but the bottom line is simple - marketing.  Lucky for TWC, the line they cast (pun intended) happened to snag a doozy of a storm.

The Nor'easter that is smashing some of the biggest  media markets in the country this weekend will likely only solidify their decision. Governor's and mayor's offices, airlines, and the general public are now using the name in everything from Twitter-banter to official correspondence (see Trending Topics on Twitter).  A storm name is very easy to track on social media and there's no doubt that was a strong consideration when the plan was hatched.  After all, social discourse is a prominent feature for TWC and since they wanted to increase "awareness" of the storms, all we can say is mission accomplished.  (Although I'm not sure whether their awareness campaign was aimed at preparation for impending impacts [something we support fully] or public awareness of their brand and domination of weather coverage.)  I'll admit, I'm jealous - the marketing was brilliant.

However, this is where my admiration stops.  There are several things about this strategy that give me pause, perhaps the greatest of which is that TWC started down this road completely on their own.  Not only is there no coordination with the official weather information provider and communicator for the U.S. (NOAA/National Weather Service) or the professional organizations that support weather folks in all capacities (American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association), apparently no attempt was made to bring them into the loop!  The move was made unilaterally.

This preemptive move means that their statement that "coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations, as well as the media" is at best lip-service and at worse an attempt to take the business of winter storms out of the hands of the official national weather provider, creating (or increasing) animosity between the organizations. Continuity and consistency of message is paramount during historic, even life-threatening, weather conditions.  The National Weather Service and NOAA are best suited to lead the efforts in this regard.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that a large media conglomerate can not, or should not, be in the business of using their megaphone to spread valuable information and to encourage their viewers to practice readiness and react accordingly in inclement weather.  But if the overriding message is that "we are superior because we were the first to name the storm," then the credibility factor goes out the window.

We're not the only ones that refuse to use winter storm names, due primarily to the perceived marketing ploy and unilateral approach employed by TWC.  In fact, with weather communicators from most non-NBC/Universal-owned media outlets to the National Weather Service NOT using the naming strategy, the sort of coordination effort that the TWC supposedly hoped to create has likely only instilled more confusion into the process of information dissemination.

What should have been done? If The Weather Channel thought going down this road was apropos (which I don't disagree with on the surface), there should have been a concerted effort to bring the NWS/NOAA, AMS, and NWA, at the very least, into the discussion well beforehand.  They could have worked out a set of criteria for naming storms (which is currently very fluid and seemingly arbitrary) and then TWC could have offered to lead the mass communication aspect of preparing and informing the public. There's no doubt that their voice is the largest when it comes to disseminating weather information to the average Joe Blow.  By speaking with one voice, and using the power behind the TWC brand, I'm certain that the decision could have led to much better results and a shared sense of purpose.  Instead, a schism has been created that causes confusion and dilutes the message.

Erik Proseus
Meteorologist/Owner, Cirrus Weather Solutions

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