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Posted at 01:41 PM ET, 03/12/2013

Storm names: In defense of Snowquester

On March 1, when Capital Weather Gang Twitter follower Phil Yabut suggested “Snowquester” as the name for the potential storm in the D.C. area on March 6, I knew we needed to look no further.

The name Snowquester was creative, Washington-centric and current. And I loved that it was metaphoric: like the budget sequester, the impacts of Snowquester were uncertain and would be unevenly distributed - with some areas getting hit harder than others. (I had just written about the effects of the budget sequester on Federal weather services the week before.)

In an abundance of caution, I waited until Sunday, March 3, to roll out the name, when it became clear the storm would not miss us. It was not a lock that the immediate D.C. area would get a big snowstorm, but we knew that someone in our coverage area - which extends to places like Leesburg, Warrenton, and Frederick - would get meaningful snow amounts.

I even posted this qualifier when we announced the name:

Important disclaimer: The fact that we’ve named the storm doesn’t guarantee snow... (in fact, we probably just jinxed the storm!)

The storm name went viral the moment it was disseminated. Many local and national media partners embraced it. Consider this comment posted to our blog on March 6 by Dave Armon, president of Critical Mention - a firm which provides global media intelligence:

Phil Yabut and the Capital Weather Gang ought to be proud that your Snowquester brand has been mentioned on U.S. TV channels 122 times since yesterday. That includes local affiliates from all major networks and national channels like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Piers Morgan and Jon Stewart used it. The 700 Club used it.

Of course, Snowquester had some competition from The Weather Channel which called the storm Saturn. I wrote Saturn was an “arbitrary, meaningless” name and stand by that. We haven’t embraced The Weather Channel’s storm names, mainly because they’ve had little to no local relevance.

Related: Weather Channel to name winter storms: a publicity and power play with possible value

Fundamentally, I have no problem with The Weather Channel naming storms if its audience appreciates it. But, as large winter weather systems can manifest themselves very differently in different areas, names that are uniquely local may resonate better, as Snowquester demonstrated.

“[The Weather Channel’s] Saturn moniker was uttered on U.S. TV 291 times [March 5 into March 6], but only 24 instances were on stations other than The Weather Channel,” Armon of Critical Mention posted. “In other words, Snowquester [which was mentioned 122 times] was six times more viral than Saturn.”

If The Weather Channel were to ask me for advice on naming storms, I’d tell it to name storms on a case-by-case basis, solicit audience feedback and then determine what’s most resonant. They might also consider making it more of a regional or local initiative since one name often does not fit all locations.

Storm name criticism

For all of the positive attention Snowquester attracted, we got plenty of push back.

The Atlantic Cities blog ranted that the name Snowquester was “obnoxious” and self-centered: No one outside of Washington wants to talk about the sequester (or uses it as a frame of reference for anything). Meanwhile, plenty of people outside of Washington live in the path of this storm, from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast. It is, however, a classic Washington move to forget that all these other people exist.

My response: Self-centered was exactly the point. We weren’t naming the storm for the entire country, but just for the D.C. area.

Others complained we should’ve waited to name it until after the storm, in case the storm failed to gel (exactly what happened inside the beltway).

“The goofy storm names were funny in the past when you guys did it after the storm hit, but the pre-storm naming seems ridiculous after the storm busted for most of DC,” said reader “jaybee.”

It’s fair to say naming a storm before it strikes involves some risk, but just like naming a child, sometimes you come up with the perfect name before birth and other times not until you lay eyes on your newborn. For example, it was a no-brainer for us to name Snowmageddon (February 4-5, 2010) in advance given high confidence forecasts for a behemoth storm, whereas it made most sense to name Commutageddon (the traffic-snarling storm of January 26, 2011) in its aftermath. In the case of Snowquester, because its meaning conveyed some uncertainty and uneven effects, we felt comfortable with the name before mother nature’s delivery.

Related: ‘Snowmageddon’ name traced back to CWG reader

I also saw a few readers contend that all of our attention on naming Snowquester distracted us from getting the forecast right. To be honest, I spent about 20 minutes on the blog post rolling out the name, and about 10 minutes to push it out on social media. In contrast, our team spent tens of hours analyzing each and every model run, and developing related storm content.

Related: Snowquester: when forecast information fails

Finally, some people simply think naming storms is cheesy. I understand that point of view, but I have found - overall - storm naming is great way to engage our reader community. Weather is something we all experience together: why shouldn’t we all take part in giving big events (or even possible big events) a name and identity?

By  |  01:41 PM ET, 03/12/2013

Categories:  Latest, Media, Capital Weather Gang, Winter Storms

 
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