When I used to do media relations for a university, I was — all modesty aside — pretty good with a news hook. When there was a disease outbreak, a political crisis, or whatever, I could find an expert in our faculty and get that person in front of microphones pretty darn quickly. I remember the big power outage in 2003. I got a call from a radio program doing crisis coverage asking if I had any experts in history of society before electricity. As it happened, I knew a great social historian who was both expert in that period of history and a good interview. I told the producer “Give me a minute”, hung up, found the prof’s home phone (everything was shut down), called him, and within 10 minutes, he was on live national radio talking about the changes that widespread electrification brought to Canadian society and what this power outage could teach us.
But there’s a material difference between finding a news hook and newsjacking. Newsjacking is an attempt by an organization to exploit an event for its own purposes. This can be done well. For example, when there was a power outage at the Super Bowl, Oreo had a spectacularly successful tweet out in mere minutes:
But that’s a best-case scenario.
- A fashion house sending out a release and photos showing actor Amy Adams with one of its handbags. The photo was taken at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s funeral service.
- Another fashion retailer using the unrest in Syria to create a “boots on the ground” themed tweet. (Two of three examples from this blog.)
Or, just this morning:
- A PR company suggesting that the death of Robin Williams was an opportunity to talk about identity theft and pitching their client as an interview.
I guess it needs to be said. This is wrong. It’s tacky and tasteless and gross. So I’m going to suggest we do a couple of things.
- If you receive this sort of messaging, don’t use it. Don’t make it successful. Contact the company and tell them how offensive their action is. Tell them this will cause the opposite of their desired goal (whether that’s sales, media attention, or whatever). Don’t share their content. Don’t give it a life that it doesn’t deserve.
- If your company is being told it should do this, be very cautious. If the idea is related to some sort of tragic event, it’s almost impossible to think of a good reason to do it. Run it past some people not connected to the idea. See if it seems tacky or opportunistic. Err on the side of caution.
Communicators — we can be better than this. Please don’t do this.