December 7, 2016

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Newsjacking: what it is, how you can use it—and when you shouldn’t

Newsjacking: what it is, how you can use it—and when you shouldn’t

Back in 2011, I interviewed David Meerman Scott for Media Bullseye about his new book that had just been released titled “Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.” The book was new, as was the term, but the idea of creating a link between a story and an issue that was breaking news wasn’t new at all.

What is Newsjacking?

At its most basic level, newsjacking is: hijacking a breaking news story to advance your idea, pitch, or issue, with the objective that the increased attention will make your piece more visible. In a world where social media and news are intertwined, newsjacking can elevate a story very quickly. It’s a simple, elegant idea—but it has to be done right, or you could end up causing a crisis for yourself or your brand, rather than just grabbing attention for an issue.

How can you use it?

In the years that have stretched between the publication of David’s book and now, I’ve seen a lot of articles and blog posts highly critical of the tactic, with some suggesting that if a communicator is “creative enough” (whatever that means), you never have to use it. I think this statement is a little bit puzzling, because it seems to suggest that this is somehow a downscale practice, employed by lazy practitioners. I’d argue that it’s just the opposite: in order to use newsjacking effectively, you not only have to be a skilled communicator, you also have to be observant and aware of the news AND be able to make a creative link to it—and this all (generally) has to happen pretty quickly.

A classic example of newsjacking done right is the Oreo tweet “you can still dunk in the dark” when the lights went out during the Super Bowl in 2013. It was timely, funny, brand appropriate, and boy did they move fast.

I just did a quick glance of the news, and here’s an example of a piece that might be appropriate for newsjacking—for the right company or brand: a story about a man who was arrested for neglecting to return a VHS rental for 14 years. What makes this a potential for newsjacking? First, it’s an offbeat and kind of silly story so you know it will take off online; two, no one was injured (except maybe the guy’s pride); three, the film that he failed to return is absurd (Freddy Got Fingered); and four, outdated technology is funny (okay I think it’s funny, YMMV). What type of brand could use this? A “to-do” list or reminder app would be logical, as perhaps maybe a streaming video service.

When shouldn’t you use it?

This is where brands have gotten in trouble, and I think the negative case studies have a tendency to stand out more in our minds than the positive ones (there’s a lesson there). Some of them have been incredibly tacky and offensive, which is probably why the tactic is perceived by some as downscale.

The second item I listed in the example above is critical: no one was injured. The most common element I’ve been able to detect in bad examples of newsjacking seems to be either the existence of or potential for death or injury. This honestly should be darn near to a no-brainer. Natural disasters, overseas government protests, days commemorating veterans, etc., are NOT good places to “sell” your product, and yet we’ve seen it time and again.

Finally, when you do use newsjacking, pay very close attention to the hashtag(s) you decide to use. The forgotten video mentioned above would lend itself well to a #NeverForget hashtag—until one does about two seconds of research and discovers that hashtag is commonly used to commemorate victims of terror attacks or lost loved ones. Is it used outside of that? Yes, but again pay attention to other news stories. Since the attacks in Belgium were recent, be mindful of how the hashtag is currently being used. Entenmann’s saw the #notguilty hashtag trending and jumped on it with a tweet about eating baked goods, not realizing that the reason the hashtag was trending was because people were furious about a not guilty verdict in the Casey Anthony trial.

Newsjacking can be a very effective strategy, but be smart and judicious about when to use it. And above all, even though speed and timing are of the essence, do your homework before newsjacking a topic or story. Don’t be tacky.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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