Newsjacking: When is it appropriate?

Many companies piggyback their news on current events, but in situations like Hurricane Sandy, when should they draw the line? A PR pro weighs in.

Newsjacking is the (sometimes) clever, quick-response PR tactic of piggybacking on current events with an angle that benefits you or your client’s company.

The strategy is not new, but it has become increasingly popular over the last several years with the rise of Twitter, and brands’ constant struggle to stay relevant and timely. Today, news stories can be buried within minutes.

Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott’s definition of newsjacking is the “process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business.”

To appropriately execute newsjacking, you must stay abreast of breaking news stories, know your target audience, and, most important, use common sense. As a result, you can increase search rankings and exposure to new customers or clients.

If you fail to heed these rules, you will:

1. Fall on your face in a desperate attempt to promote a hardly-relevant spin on a topic.

2. Most likely anger a social community of very vocal citizens.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I felt the need to bring up the most sensitive and, more often than not, inappropriate newsjacking that occurs during a tragedy.

Take a look at this gem:

President John F. Kennedy once famously noted that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” consists of two characters. One represents danger, and the other opportunity.

It is in the opportunity part that many wide-eyed marketers neglect any sense of sympathy or reason. They embarrass themselves, their companies, and the entire public relations industry.

HubSpot received much backlash this week on a blog post it has since taken down. It highlighted marketers who newsjacked Hurricane Sandy. HubSpot responded in a follow-up post. It sort of apologized and posed the question: “Is Newsjacking Hurricane Sandy Right or Wrong?”

HubSpot provided some awful examples of newsjacking, but a few are partially relevant to emergency tactics or supplies.

The worst include InStyle Magazine’s cosmetics story, “Hurricane Sandy Have You Stuck Inside? 5 Beauty Treatments to Help Ride Out the Storm,” and online dating site HowAboutWe’s blog post titled “18 of Our Favorite Hurricane Sandy Date Ideas from HowAboutWe Members.”

Yes, because my family’s primary concerns—they live on the East Coast—are manicures or their next date during 80 mph winds.

A few short months ago, the tragedy in Aurora, Colo. was followed by more instances of tasteless and disgusting marketing. Most notably, a retail boutique tweeted this mere hours after the shootings:

@celebboutique: #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress 🙂

This is insensitive and shocking, and shows complete disregard for all the people affected. The boutique claimed it did not know about the event as it is not located in the United States, yet it tweeted about Kim Kardashian.

Don’t buy it. The people on Twitter didn’t. Celeb Boutique ruined its online image forever.

You will not overcome these very public mistakes of mocking or downplaying a crisis. Instead, exercise tact, empathy and better judgment. If you can’t, rethink your career choice.

As a PR professional, “disgust” is the word that comes to my mind, as well as other obscenities that stem from my frustration about horribly misplaced PR stunts. I secretly hope these individuals have no background in the field, but I know I am just fooling myself. We all make mistakes, but these instances are crass and unforgivable.

Unless your company or client has a product or service directly applicable to a situation as severe as the ones above, leave it be. There are very few companies in this category, and if you have to wonder if you belong, the answer is always no.

Amy Kauffman works at HMG Creative. A version of this article originally appeared on the HMG Creative blog.

Topics: PR

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