Meet the advocates of ‘newsjacking’

As if PR needs another self-inflicted injury, this movement is a stain on the industry.

As a marketing communication consultant, I’m saddened to see a leading public relations service provider claim, “Newsjacking has become a common practice for the successful PR professional,” and surprised to see that service urge clients to capitalize on breaking news.

Promotional piggybacking off timely topics isn’t new. Journalists welcome legitimate sources’ offers to share expertise, a tradition that predates tweets, trending topics, and Help a Reporter Out (HARO). But when the usually sober Cision media-monitoring firm titles an Aug. 13 blog post Newsjack the Newsjackers, we’re in shark-jumping waters.

Nate Shafer, promoted this year to digital media specialist by the Chicago company, starts by admiring “best practices” in a 2011 e-book, Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media. At least there’s no pretense to subtlety or sophistication.

“The ideal time to newsjack a story is right after it breaks, but before too many additional stories have been written on the subject,” advises Shafer, a 2009 University of Illinois graduate whose career does not include news media experience. He describes trend-spotting tools from his employer and a beta-test search engine called Realtime.

“Once you have identified your groundswell, the next step is writing your article,” adds the Cision blogger, who applies that last word to any online content that will be optimized by having news-related keywords and hashtags in tweets sharing it.

Urging speed, he notes: “You are not only competing against every other PR professional and journalist, but against the general public’s interest!” (Shafer clarifies that unfortunate last phrase in a posted response to me: “My statement that you referenced … was not meant to go against the “public interest” but toward their “interest level.”)

Grabbing brazenly for online attention via topic du jour opportunism positions the perpetrator as a bottom-feeder. It’s the opposite of “earned media,” PR jargon for company profiles, quotes in news-reaction roundups and other coverage obtained the old-fashioned way.

This week’s post reinforces a generally unfair view of PR and corporate communication as crassly opportunistic, rather than ethical and professional. I’m not a “leading social media and marketing speaker,” as the Boston e-book writer casts himself, but I’ve worked with major corporations and never have seen newsjacking used as a tactical element of strategic communication plans.

Cision and David Meerman Scott, the e-book author it admires, believe in a quick shortcut to “Generate Tons of Media.” But:

  • Is real business value derived from online news consumers’ fleeting attention?
  • Does a day or so of higher search ranking translate into an image uptick, site visits, sales leads, or conversion?
  • Do newsjackers gain Storify pickups, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends—and would that matter?
  • Does newsjacking signify meaningful thought leadership?

These puzzlements led me to engage with Cision about its post.

“If we as PR professionals have a story related to our brand, client, or organization that ties in well to what’s going on in the news in our industry, I think it’s still honorable and ethical to capitalize on the timing and opportunity of a news story,” company vice president Heidi Sullivan replied publicly on Facebook.

A company response on its Facebook page says “newsjacking is a harsh-sounding word” and acknowledges that “the tone of the content read differently than intended.” Its seven-sentence reply suggests the intent was to show that “we need to know the best time to publish content and cut through the noise.”

In any event, I believe newsjacking brings one-day traffic that doesn’t mean jack.

Alan Stamm, a marketing communication consultant in Birmingham, Mich., is a former print and online journalist.

Topics: PR

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.