CEO Q&A: David Kenny, The Weather Channel

David Kenny, CEO of The Weather Channel, talks to Diana Bradley about the dispute with DirecTV and creating a culture of transparency.

David Kenny, CEO of The Weather Channel, talks to Diana Bradley about the dispute with DirecTV and creating a culture of transparency.

The Weather Channel started the year being pulled from DirecTV after a contract dispute. How did you respond?
This is probably the biggest PR challenge the communications team and our company has faced. Our external PR strategy was to fire on all cylinders.

This included engaging Congress and building awareness that losing The Weather Channel could pose a safety risk for their constituents, mobilizing DirecTV subscribers via marketing, PR, and social media to let the satellite provider know they want the channel back, and encouraging subscribers to switch to another service. Now we are trying to prevent others from making a mistake by becoming DirecTV subscribers.

Internally, our strategy was to be as open with employees as possible to let them know what was happening. Also, as our biggest ambassadors, we mobilized them to get the word out about DirecTV dropping us, and encourage their family and friends to switch from DirecTV to another cable provider.

The results have been overwhelming. As of February, keeptheweatherchannel.com had more than 6 million visitors, about 800,000 people sent complaints to DirecTV, and 270,000 people pledged to leave the provider. Those numbers change hourly.

Tell us about the relaunch last November.
As we were creating the new look and feel of our channel, we did some soul searching about our identity, about who we are, what we mean to people, and what we recognize and celebrate as a network.

Our identity at our core is really a bunch of people who are fascinated by the weather – and that’s both for the people who make our shows and the people who watch them. This led organically to our new tagline, ‘It’s amazing out there.’

And while it sounds simple, it really is a breakthrough. It informs everything we do. Every single story we tell is around something amazing and weather-centered.

What has been your most successful PR campaign to date?
In November 2012, we began systematically naming winter storms, which caused a big media stir – some people were for it, some against. It started off with science, as everything does here. Our scientists had a plan for how we would name winter storms, since a big part of our role is communicating weather information to the public.

We started naming winter storms because, like with hurricanes, it’s much easier to reference a storm by name, especially in the age of social media, for example #Nemo rather than #StormintheGreatLakesarea.

What we have seen is huge social media usage to the point where airlines, mayors, other brands, and media outlets are using our names. When something becomes part of culture and the lexicon, it equates to a successful PR campaign. Our next goal is to get government or an academic institution to take this over for the industry.  

How does the channel engage staff?
When I joined the company, it was very important to me to create a culture of transparency. I want employees to know what’s going on or know they can ask me anything.

We are constantly communicating with our team via email and Google Groups, whether it’s about a new series premiering on the network to developments with DirecTV.

I also hold a regular meeting called Lightning Round, where we present leadership awards and give employees the opportunity to submit questions anonymously for me to answer. We also just try to do fun things such as bringing in food trucks to celebrate our relaunch. We want everyone to feel invested in all of our products.

What role does PR play?
Our communications and social media team of seven people is proof that you don’t need a huge budget to get results. Earned media is really important for us. We don’t have the resources to buy our presence in big consumer outlets, so we have to be clever and strategic and find the right angles to get editorial coverage. 

Our approach with marketing and communications is pretty simple: to be as strategic and creative as possible. Both PR and social media play a huge role in reaching our target audience, which is more than 40 million weather enthusiasts, in addition to more than 100 million casual users.

How do you use social media to engage consumers and viewers?
If an area has been devastated by a storm, we leverage social to help mobilize support for survivors, whether that’s fundraising or creating awareness for rebuilding efforts.

We also launched My Friends’ Weather on Facebook, which allows people to see if their friends have been impacted by severe weather, to check on them, and send alerts.

What is next for the channel?
Some exciting new original series will be premiering throughout 2014. On digital, we will be launching new and improved products on mobile and the Web.

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