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
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 “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.”

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