When PR agency professionals plan a product launch or news announcement, we do it with close attention to detail. In most cases there’s sufficient lead time to schedule each element carefully. A top priority is to steer clear of previously planned events that could conceivably steal our PR thunder. Even if the news isn’t directly relevant, we avoid happenings likely to trigger cascading stories that could fight with our news, like the Olympic Games opening, Election Day, or big pop culture events. (Pity the gaming launch that tried to compete with Pokémon Go this week!)
But breaking news, by definition, isn’t planned. What can you do when sudden news threatens to preempt your story?
You can’t plan for breaking news and in a worst-case scenario, there’s nothing to be done after the fact. Truly catastrophic events like the terrorist attack on 9/11 or key events during the 2007 financial crash, have ramifications that make PR considerations recede in comparison. (I seem to recall a major client press event scheduled on October 1, 2001 at the World Trade Center, but even weeks later it was a sad footnote to the larger crisis.)
Fortunately for all of us, such disasters are rare. But there are other breaking news events that PR professionals dread. We live in fear of sudden government resignations, a celebrity scandal or untimely passing, or – in tech PR especially — a surprise Apple product launch. Journalists are instantly reassigned, interview opportunities dissolve, and your story is suddenly yesterday’s news.
How does a communications professional manage the risk of breaking news? Here are a few ways:
Don’t stage events unless truly warranted. The CEO may like the idea, but as a rationale for creating a media event, the bar should be high, and good PR practitioners should push it even higher. Unless it’s a category-creating product launch or the announcement of a celebrity business partnership, formal press conferences are often not necessary. A theatrical product unveiling works best within a trade show that offers a captive audience of working journalists, like CES. Outside of a conference or bigger event, it’s wise to offer as much flexibility as possible in terms of time and materials. We like “drop-in” demo days for new products where media and bloggers can come by at a time of their choosing to cover a product launch. Low-risk, high-reward.
Always have a Plan B. Even if it’s just a careful phasing of the launch program elements, good PR people people learn early on never to put all their eggs in a media event basket. As noted, apart from events like a breakthrough drug announcement or a product launch to rival the iPhone, an overreliance on event theatrics is risky at best. Smart communicators phase a launch program by building in executive interviews, influencer endorsement campaigns, and content distribution elements in case event coverage is light due to breaking news.
Go with it. Once, during a government shutdown that drew wall-to-wall media coverage, we supplied pillows from a mattress company client for members of Congress who had vowed to sleep in their offices. It generated some fun and unexpected media coverage. More recently, our client was working on an app for the Apple Watch and we were able to own part of the technology conversation around the Apple ecosystem that resulted from the product launch. But this was only possible because much of the Apple Watch information has been leaked, and developers were in the know.
If you can latch your news onto a larger story in a timely and seamless way, it’s a winner. But newsjacking only works when there’s a natural connection to your news. In most cases it’s difficult to link a news announcement to a breaking story outside of your industry.
Remember the media exclusive. In tech PR many communicators will offer a major reporter first crack at a newsworthy story. These “exclusives” are typically planned to break the day of a splashy product launch and they’re often a win-win because the journalist gets first-access and the company often gets a more in-depth story than it would otherwise. A media exclusive can also serve as a kind of insurance policy if it’s a busy launch season, and it’s applicable to any vertical business category.
Budget for paid content as well as earned media. If organic media opportunities are wiped out by a breaking news event, paid content can serve as a fallback. That’s one reason why every PR professional working today is learning branded content techniques and is familiar with content distribution tools and tactics that can sometimes salvage a big launch when you need it most.