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How TV Station Marketers Are Tackling the Coronavirus Challenge

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It's in times of crisis that local broadcasters shine. 

The above spot -- in which anchors from different TV stations in the Washington, D.C., market all share the message that “We are here for you” -- is a perfect example of how local broadcasters are approaching their role in the nationwide coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the things that has impressed me the most has been watching the various broadcasters come together like never before,” said Dana Feldman, senior VP, marketing and promotions, Sinclair Broadcast Group.

That coming together has taken place across markets and broadcast groups as teams work to keep their stations on the air while informing and reassuring their viewers.

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Doing that was initially challenging, as employees had to quickly move from their in-station set-ups to work-from-home situations across the country. For broadcasters, working from home is no more casual than working from TV stations because their critical mission of staying on the air and serving the public at all costs remains the same.

But that’s why TV stations were uniquely prepared to quickly make the drastic switch. Many TV station teams have found themselves working in emergency conditions, as a result of fires, floods, hurricanes and now, a pandemic.

“We have always focused first on serving our communities and our marketing has always gone in that direction,” said Feldman. “With the virus, we of course had to transition over to the latest coverage. Obviously, we had to put some projects aside and make sure we emphasized all the ways people could get the latest information, whether that’s on air, online or over our apps.”

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“Early in March, we started daily meetings with our staff to prepare them,” said John Kukla, VP of creative services at Fox-owned KDFW/KDFI Dallas-Fort Worth. “We also put into place what would need to be done if we all had to leave the building and we couldn’t produce from home. We made sure there were generic spots on the logs and we gave alpha control a list of evergreen spots. We were trying to think ahead for both the best- and worst-case scenario.”

Once station teams were set up at home, they started instituting new communications protocols—jumping on daily video calls, and so forth.

“A lot of it comes down to teamwork. In an age where you can’t physically be with your team, you have to learn to rely on people in new ways,” said Meredith Conte, VP, consumer and ad-sales marketing, Tegna. “For us at Tegna, the partnership between the marketing team and the technology team [that has allowed us to take] advantage of the tech stack has been vital. Whether it’s Adobe or a cloud storage solution or stock footage or a library music partner, all of those partnerships have become vitally important.”

Related: COVID-19: The Story of a Lifetime

While communication between employees on station teams grew more frequent, so did communication between groups as they created spots that could be used in markets across the country.

“One thing that’s been very helpful is the sharing from station to station,” said Conte. “At Tegna, we spend a lot of time, even outside of this situation, making sure our marketers feel they are part of a collective. Even if you are in Denver, you have access to creative coming out of Washington, D.C. That culture of sharing has always been strong but I would say it’s even stronger now.”

“We’ve always had a promo-site share,” said Feldman. “The sharing is just happening much more because of the urgency.”

KDFW has gone a step further and created relevant spots for Warner Bros.’ off-network run of The Big Bang Theory that the station gave to Warner Bros. to make available for stations across the entire country that air the show, whether owned by Fox or not.

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To that end, almost as soon as TV station marketers had gotten themselves set up at home, they began changing up their stations’ branding and marketing messages.

“We started our messaging at the end of February when we were just hearing things to say that whatever happens, we’re here for you. Just a general ‘we’re your news station’ kind of thing,” said Kukla. “That morphed into a message of ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen next but we’re here for each other.’ Our message has always been 'Fox 4 Here for You.' That’s been our touchstone for the past four years, so we’ve actually morphed it to become ‘Here With You.’”

“We had to shift our messaging—we had to flip almost our entire library of campaigns to meet the needs of the consumer today,” said Daniel Meyers, marketing director at Tegna’s WGRZ Buffalo. “The worst thing you can do during any campaign is look irrelevant.”

That change has included everything from the messaging to the overall brand look.

“We don’t want to be scaring audiences,” said Conte. “We stripped our coronavirus coverage of a blaring bright red and went with a softer blue palette. We have branded our coverage as ‘facts not fear.’ This is not a time to scare audiences—this is a time to reassure and to inspire confidence.”

While TV station marketers were doing all of that, they also found that there was more demand for their services. The pandemic has forced many advertisers to reevaluate their goals and the timing of their messages, so they have stopped advertising for the moment. That has resulted in marketers needing to fill more on-air inventory.

“Local teams have to think about their promo breaks a lot differently today than they ever have,” said Conte. “They might have more extended breaks or they may have shorter breaks, and they may not have access to the look-live shots they are used to. They may have to fill more breaks, and may have more inventory at their disposal than they ever have. So they are having to be very creative.”

“A lot of advertisers have stepped up and reformatted their messaging,” said Kukla. “Some, candidly, can’t be on, so we find ourselves with more extra time on our logs in certain areas than we’re used to. We’ve taken the approach to turning some of these avails into additional information.”

At KDFW, the marketing team went to consumer reporter Steve Noviello, who reports such news-you-can-use stories as “how to file for unemployment.” That sort of information seemed particularly helpful to audiences in this moment so the marketing team worked with Noviello to produce more such bite-size informative stories, which are branded as “Save Me, Steve.”

In addition, one of KDFW’s anchors is doing stories on the types of good deeds neighbors are doing for each other drawn from photos and videos viewers are sending to her.

“She showcases that on the news and then we turn that around into promos,” said Kukla.

Marketers have to be careful about how they fill that extra inventory, constantly making sure their content and tone is appropriate and accurate.

“We see differences in what stations are promoting,” said Conte. “There are more PSAs, community and motivational spots. You won’t see as many news topicals. Marketers are doing a good job thinking differently about the inventory and how to fill it.”

As the pandemic has worn on, stations have had time to create larger community-wide campaigns, such as Sinclair’s initiative “Sinclair Cares: Your Neighbor Needs You” in partnership with the Salvation Army. The initiative’s goal is to raise money to support Americans in need due to the pandemic. All Sinclair stations and outlets are producing on-air, digital and social-media content towards supporting this effort, and the company has pledged to match donations up to $100,000.

Sinclair has been working with the Salvation Army towards community relief since 2017, in the aftermath of such events as Hurricanes Harvey, Florence and Michael, the Midwest Bomb Cyclone, the Carr Fire in California and recent tornadoes that touched down in Nashville.

The crisis has, of course, led to innovation, some of which is likely to continue past the quarantine.

For example, Sinclair has created a commercial-free coronavirus-focused channel on its free streaming service, Stirr. There, all coronavirus-related content created by Sinclair’s news and content team is collected and offered to viewers. Since the first week of March, Stirr has seen a 70% daily increase in total users, a 56% increase in total daily sessions, and an 84% spike in total video plays, according to Sinclair.

Working so closely together—yet apart—during the pandemic, has drawn all of these teams closer, which should result in long-lasting changes after the stay-at-home orders are finally rescinded.

“Our stations are now even more together. There are a lot of lessons that will come out of this and I think that’s one of the good ones,” said Kukla. “We’re also getting really good at DIY television. That just shows our adaptability and resiliency. When we’re put to the test, people find solutions. It’s just in our nature to figure things out.”

And more broadly: “This is a brand moment for every local station in America,” said Conte. “This is a brand moment for the industry. How we treat this story and how we treat our audience and present the information visually and sonically to them is all so important. We want people to stay tuned in, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it in a way that’s scary or anxiety inducing. The situation is anxiety inducing enough.”

A version of this story also appears atDaily Brief by Promax, where the author is editorial director.