Stations Commit 'Social' Faux-Pas

Viewers using Facebook to lament sacked talent; TV outlets stay silent

Meteorologist Geoff Fox was on course to hit his 27th year of calling weather at WTNH Hartford–New Haven on May 21, but his career took a turn when his contract was not renewed in January. What ensued emerged as a case study for the burgeoning social media world, as nothing short of a firestorm erupted on Facebook—viewers rallying behind Fox and blasting WTNH for dismissing the popular weatherman.

WTNH, by several accounts, stayed mum as thousands of users jumped on board the “Keep Geoff Fox on Channel 8” Facebook page and contacted the station for an explanation.

While many local TV execs are quick to tout their social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter, the Geoff Fox incident showed that some may not have considered the downside of social media as much as the upside. “When you’re inviting your audience to participate in social media, certain implications are made that you’re going to listen to viewers,” says Fox, an active social media participant who has blogged at GeoffFox.com since 2003. “This was a textbook case of how not to use social media.”

The problem, as stations are learning, is that there is no textbook for social media, forcing traditional media outlets to find their way through the Facebook forest on their own—often with negative consequences.

Facebook is an extraordinarily powerful marketing platform. Geoff Fox says the online barrage following his termination was brought up by managers at the two job interviews he went on in recent months, and likely helped him resurface at Tribune’s WTIC–Hartford in April. A grassroots campaign on Facebook to have Betty White host Saturday Night Live was a factor in her taking on that role one week last year, confirmed an NBC representative.

During last month’s tornadoes in the South, WBMA Birmingham’s James Spann tapped his 60,000-plus Facebook friends (and 26,000 Twitter followers) to help him track storms all around the DMA in virtual real time. Out in Grand Rapids, Mich., longtime anchor Suzanne Geha became another local TV Facebook star after her dismissal from WOOD last month.

While stations have been cutting ties with high-priced talent forever, viewers now have the ability to protest the personnel moves in a very public forum and join up with other protesters to make their displeasure heard. And social media watchers say stations had better have a strategy for addressing scads of upset online viewers. “[Facebook] isn’t just free marketing,” says Steve Safran, editor of the pioneering TV/new media site LostRemote.com. “Stations may not realize the responsibility they have to customer service.”

Neither WTNH nor WOOD returned calls for comment. Both stations are owned by LIN.

The Keep Geoff Fox… page swelled to 11,600 fans on Facebook. That may seem modest in a DMA with 1 million TV households, but it’s not that far off the 16,100 who follow “WTNH Channel 8” on Facebook. “For a local market, for something that’s built spontaneously, that’s a great show of passion,” says Gillian Verga, VP of marketing at social media marketing firm Friend2Friend.

A common theme on “Keep Geoff Fox” was that WTNH management ignored users’ calls and emails. Social media marketers feeling reticence in the face of upset customers is the wrong tack, and in this case might reinforce the stereotype of station suits crunching numbers in some distant office, blind to community concerns.

“[Social media] is a great source of invaluable feedback for you. You get a sense of how users react to content, and what they’re most interested in,” says Verga. “Ignoring them opens you up to criticism. Let people know, I am listening, and here’s what I have to say.”

It helps to have a robust social media strategy well in advance of a potential crisis, she adds. “You don’t want to wait until the crisis, then try to establish your Facebook presence,” says Verga.

For his part, Fox, 60, is happily entrenched at WTIC. He is reporting on science as well as weather, and gets a charge from working alongside Hartford Courant print reporters. Fox chooses his words carefully when discussing his departure from WTNH and expresses no bitterness.

The same can’t be said for his fans. Dinah Wells, an electrical contractor and weather buff from Guilford, watched Fox on WTNH for decades. Getting no response from the station after he was dismissed, she shifted allegiance to WTIC, where she digs her favorite meteorologist as much as ever—and has taken to his new “Fox CT” colleagues too. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with [WTIC news],” Wells says. “It’s local, it’s timely, and not slanted to the right, which I thought a Fox affiliate might be. I think it’s really darn good.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz