Or, the real title I wanted: Can you use the tactic of “newsjacking” and not look like a jackass?

Newsjacking refers to “the practice of capitalizing on the popularity of a news story to amplify your sales and marketing success (Hubspot) and is an often-used technique for media relations professionals to earn media coverage for their clients.

Communications professionals at companies or public relations agencies are constantly scanning the media landscape to determine what is in the news that affects a company or its stakeholders. Part of what makes a public relations effort successful is to fully understand what is being said in the news media and marketplace and how it relates to your brand.

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Just a few days ago Talkwalker’s Global State of PR report revealed that “while nearly half of PR professionals globally confirmed that their companies use social listening tools, only 15% of them utilize them for newsjacking – a huge missed opportunity, considering newsjacking is widely considered as a PR technique that can drive mass coverage and influence sales in a measurable way.

Unfortunately, over-exuberant pitchers often take the tiny grain of connection and blow it into a full-fledged press release. With the constant reporting and discussion of the Coronavirus, journalists’ email inboxes and newsrooms are being inundated with bad, unrelated or inappropriate press releases and media pitches.

Obviously, your pitch has to relevant. That is always the case in media relations.

But can you use breaking news as an entry point to get media coverage for yourself or your brand? Absolutely. In my 20 years as a communications professional, I have provided many experts and supporting information to journalists who are working on breaking stories. If you are a valued source to a journalist they are much more likely to rely on you during a busy reporting time than to take the time to find new sources.

But what about the people outside of the news trying to get into it like the home organization expert who pitched one of the journalists that I follow on Twitter something along the lines of being home due to coronavirus is a good time to organize your house.

What? That does nothing for the news reporter and is a very obvious ploy to get the person mentioned in the news without adding any real value.

The key, of course, is offering value.

Mike Maney has really good advice:

When a breaking news story comes up it is natural to view that story through the lens of your own experience and brand. We all do that. But to be successful at pitching journalists during a crisis, you need to be an experienced professional.

Yascha Mounk just published an article on how the “dubious” Corona beer brand poll by 5WPR was what he calls “a fishing expedition designed to elicit viral stats” and not hard news that intended to shed light on consumer concerns around a virus outbreak. After the news article went viral, the CEO went of the defense with this statement: “We’ve seen no impact to our people, facilities or operations and our business continues to perform very well.”

Mounk went on to say this heartbreaking quote about my beloved profession:

The strange virality of the Corona poll demonstrates that there are ruthless PR flacks who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth. It also shows that there are many journalists at supposedly trustworthy news outlets who are so desperate to rush to publication that they can wind up misinforming their public. (What else is new?)

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Sadly, I agree with Mounk. Public relations professionals and those who have PR assigned as other duties do often drop the ball trying to move fast to be first. I cannot speak to the decisions around the report but it seems to me that public relations professionals, journalists, and media outlets are all on an incredibly fast race across a very high tightrope.

Diving into the news of a disaster or national crisis is very difficult to execute. While I love connecting everything that happens in the world to public relations, there are going to be very few people, services or products that have a relevant Coronavirus pitch.

During a time of crisis, unless you are at the center of health, medicine, or research, the best advice is to leave it to the professionals. Yes, everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame, but the most likely outcome is that you are going to irritate a journalist with a poorly-timed, off-topic pitch.

Danielle Baskin launched Resting Risk Face which makes facial masks with will print user’s faces on them so that they can use the facial recognition technology on their devices. This immediately was caught up in the news related to wearing a mask as a protection against illnesses. I do not know how much of the media was driven by the company itself, but it seemed to put a smile on the face of journalist Dion Lim.

PRWeek noted recently that BrewDog, Uber, and Deliveroo all successfully jumped into breaking news with campaigns that were both relevant and in alignment with their brands. These campaigns worked because the issues at play were not catastrophes or wide-spread health concerns. There were likely only going to be disappointed people, not severe illness and death. You can approach the news is a much more lighthearted manner when there are no real victims.

Companies might be wise to offer their own take on breaking news, but in doing so there may be risks and a better method of starting a conversation with customers on the topic might be to invest more time in blogs, website customer chat, and social media conversations. Just because you think there is a connection between your brand and a disaster you are not required to amplify that messaging. Many, many companies make their biggest profits during disasters – you do not have to celebrate it.

How to successfully newsjack a breaking story:

  1. Plan your news media strategies ahead of time. No, you cannot foresee a crisis, but have the what-if steps outlined and in place. Be educated and well-read on the topic ahead of time. 

  2. Understand who the media outlets and journalists are that will likely cover your topic and be well-versed in the types of coverage they do ahead of time.

  3. Make sure that your pitch is offering deeper expertise and insight into the issue, not simply offering a product or service as a solution. If there is any part of your pitch that is transactional (i.e. selling a product you want people to buy) rethink it until it’s just based on expert feedback and ideas.

  4. The pitch must include a spokesperson that is externally and widely viewed as an expert. You do not get to name yourself the expert. 

  5. Make sure that pitch offers new questions, solutions or opinions, and is not another ‘us too’ rehash. You need to outline exactly how your pitch moves the conversation forward. 


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