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The perfect storm: Inside The Weather Channel’s communications function


August 1, 2011

David Blumenthal has always been interested in the weather.

“It’s funny; when you work here, you have to be,” the director of communications for The Weather Channel says with a laugh. “An average weather enthusiast is dwarfed by everybody here. I check the forecast frequently like many of our viewers and users, but when you come to a building and work at a company with 200 meteorologists, you realize that you’re just an average weather person because these folks are hardcore.”

Originally from the New York area, Blumenthal studied communications in college and worked in consumer packaged goods for Revlon as well as for several boutique agencies. He relocated to Atlanta about 15 years ago and has worked in technology and media ever since.

In 2005, he began working at  The Weather Channel, which is one of the top-five most-distributed cable networks and is currently in more than 100 million homes.

 “At The  Weather Channel, seasons are often defined by the types of weather we cover,” Blumenthal says. “However, away from work, my favorite season is fall.” — Amy Jacques

How did you start working for The Weather Channel?

Prior to  The Weather Channel, I worked in succession for two Internet service providers — a pure ISP as well as Bell South, which now is a part of  AT&T — and had done the Internet access side of the business.  After leaving the ISP, I spent my first couple of years working here as the PR person for the digital part of our business — primarily on Weather.com and  The Weather Channel Mobile.

What’s a typical day for you as director of communications?

It’s all about the weather. It’s a matter of what’s going on here. If we have crews out covering severe weather, then that’ll change the way our days look. If we have crews in the field covering an event like the recent tornado outbreaks, then we’ll spend a lot of time working as a team and pitching media to offer our people to other outlets as the experts on whatever just occurred. So that definitely changes the scope of a day. It’s the big variable, as you might imagine.

We’ve got a small team. In a lot of ways, we’re like an in-house agency and we’re supporting every part of the company, doing both internal and external communications — everything from supporting our ad sales groups to human resources.

When pitching other media outlets, do you promote the individual talent or The Weather Channel as a whole?

We’re doing a little bit of both.  We’ll promote The Weather Channel for programming, but we’ll also spend time promoting our on-air talent as experts.  The difference between The Weather Channel and other people who make weather a part of their coverage is the group of experts here. So, we’ll look to put them out there [and] to share their expertise because it helps build our brand.

How has The Weather Channel been using social media, and how successful have these efforts been?

It’s been successful.  We use social media in two ways.  Because we’re a content provider, we’ve got a group of people who are active on Twitter and Facebook — our meteorologists, our on-air folks as well as some folks behind the scenes. They’re always pushing out content so it’s a great tool for them to share and connect with their audience.

It’s also been a great tool for us as a content provider to get content.  We’ve got people submitting their videos and photos and giving us real-time knowledge and stories about the weather happening in particular places. So we’re getting great information that we can then pass on through social media.  And we’re connecting with those people.

We also use it as a promotional tool to let people know what’s going on, whether it be programming or where our [experts] are.

How has The Weather Channel TV viewership fared with the growing popularity of smartphones and mobile apps?

We’ve done research, and we found that people who engage with our brand on their smartphone or on Weather.com are also more likely to watch us on television. So even though some of the media for the past few years might have thought, “Well, we’re not going to do that because we’re going to worry about cannibalizing our audience,” that’s never been a concern here.

The feeling has always been that we should be providing weather in every possible place and situation where someone wants it. So, if they watch the network in the morning as they’re getting ready for work or taking their kids to school, then maybe they’re going to check the weather at their desk on Weather.com.

And, in the afternoon, if they’re on the go, then maybe they’re going to check it on one of our mobile apps.  We feel like we need to be everywhere, and that each platform supports the brand as a whole and gets people to come back to us.

How have viewers responded to your primetime shows like “Storm Stories?”

“Storm Stories” has been a success, and it’s been on our air for years now. People look for that.  They expect that we’re going to have weather-related content.  We’ve had several different series that people have embraced and that they’ve told us about.  We get emails from folks or social media comments talking about a story that we should feature on a show like “Storm Stories.”

So, people have responded well to it.  When Jim Cantore or Mike Bettes or one of our other meteorologists is out in the field, it’s one of the things people talk to them about.
 
How has The Weather Channel evolved since Frank Batten, Sr. launched it in 1982?

It’s beyond being in 100 million homes; it’s grown in every possible way. The way we cover weather has evolved.
If you’ve watched our network over the past couple months and the way we’ve covered the tornado outbreaks, being out there immersed in the weather has made a tremendous difference.  We’re going to have our experts in the studio and show a weather map, but we’re also going to have the video of the storm developing, the people giving you a live report.

In TV coverage, we’ve not only forecasted the storm, but we’ll show you as it’s happening, what happened and what the impact was. That’s been something that we’ve done a lot more of — we’ll stay there.

Recently, with the Joplin, Mo. tornado, Mike Bettes was on a month-long tornado hunt. He was out chasing storms. His crew was the first in town after the tornado hit. They were there within an hour because they were chasing that particular storm.

They were there before, right afterward, and then, for a few days covering it. He went back a month later to report on how the town has fared since that happened.  That’s been a great evolution for us and a bit of a change.

The technology side is the other part of it that’s changed.  Weather.com and the mobile side of the business have evolved in ways that I don’t think Frank Batten, Sr. would’ve ever imagined.

What challenges do you face in your day-to-day job as a communicator?

It’s a great brand and many people know about it, but one of the hardest parts as a communicator and as somebody who pitches reporters is getting people to understand that they don’t know everything about the brand.

Like many other companies, we’re always looking to change perceptions as our brand has changed.  We always want to remind people that it’s more than the network — we’re on every platform.  We have a TV network, Weather.com and we’re on mobile like no other company. So, getting people to know more about us is the challenge we always face.

How do you keep  The Weather Channel brand fresh and interesting? And do on-the-go consumers care more about the weather today than in the past?

Weather has become a lead story on the news now,  just based on the circumstance. So we’ve got to keep our brand fresh and interesting by keeping our coverage up to the standards we’ve always had.

Having the experts there and people in the field providing that coverage is the challenge for us.  That’s what we’re working to do every day.

How is weather being packaged as a news commodity?

It’s interesting because we watch how others are going to cover what we cover.  I’ve talked to some of our meteorologists who have been here for a long time.  Jim Cantore is the perfect example; he’s about to have his 25-year anniversary here.  When we first were out there, we were alone.  Nobody else was out there on the beach, covering an approaching hurricane.  Now,  there are a lot of other people.  But the difference — and the way we set ourselves apart — is that the person out there is a meteorologist and they’re going to have that depth of knowledge.

It’s also having the experts back here who can not only say that this is happening, but they’re going to say why it’s happening. So that’s the responsibility.

As it becomes a bigger story and it’s covered in a lot of places, we’re still going to make sure we’re unique in the way we cover [the weather] with that scientific background.

What is your favorite part of your job?

It’s two things. Being a news junkie, working in the news business is definitely something I like.  The fact that I’m there and can watch our teams track a weather event from start to finish — and being involved and watching how they cover it — is interesting as a PR person working for a media organization because you have that access and understanding of what the media’s interested in and how they’re building a story.

The other part is working with our technology teams. I’m a gadget nerd — I’m interested in smartphones and tablets and all.  We’ve got folks who are developing apps for new and emerging platforms.

Working with them, you get a sneak peak of what’s to come.  To me, that’s a lot of fun, because you get a chance to play around with different [gadgets] and see what’s going on.

Getting to know… David Blumenthal

What’s your favorite summer pastime?
Swimming with my kids

What’s your favorite movie?
“The Godfather”

If you could have any three dinner guests — past or present — who would they be?
Benjamin Franklin, President Obama and Howard Stern



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