PR Tips For Taking Advantage Of Breaking News

How can PR agencies keep their clients top-of-mind in a 24-hour media environment? The most effective public relations teams develop strategies to “newsjack” for opportunities to keep pace with the news cycle. This is particularly useful when an organization doesn’t have hard news to share, or when the product roadmap doesn’t contain any new launches or innovations to generate media coverage.

Besides, elevating a brand or company’s image by carefully inserting their business or product into the existing conversation is exciting. It could essentially leverage one agency’s capability over another’s when seeking new business opportunities. And there are certain B2B tech sectors, like cybersecurity, where reactive media pitching is often a large and important program component. Digital security brands, among others, need to be visible when the latest ransomware story is dominating headlines. 

How Newsjacking Works

Newsjacking, as defined by David Meerman Scott, is “the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.” Reactive media pitching should not be the centerpiece of a good PR program; however, it can help capitalize on opportunities that generate tangible results and positive buzz.

PR teams must operate in a real-time mindset to do this well in a 24-hour news cycle. Media must deliver new and compelling information to consumers instantly in a hotly competitive environment, and we’re here to help.

Speed is the most critical element of successful newsjacking, so the PR team should act fast. How soon is too soon, though?

Avoid breaking news that is controversial or polarizing

There’s a fine line between being opportunistic and being gratuitous. PR agencies must determine if the juice is worth the squeeze, acting judiciously and using good judgment. By using a thoughtful approach we can maintain the client’s integrity and our own credibility when actively chasing a breaking story. Avoid tragic events, or at the very least gauge risk by assessing how the audience might respond. 

Brands should also make sure the messaging and tone employed along with the news or trend they’re focused on is aligned with their business or product. Jumping on a story for the sake of coverage may have the opposite result than intended, positioning the brand as insensitive or worse. We saw this when Urban Outfitters and others used Hurricane Sandy to promote online shopping by touting #SandySales. 

Are you fast enough?

Because news moves quickly, the pressure is on to develop a creative, well-packaged message that provides an original, relevant angle. Don’t wait on the next big story to break; instead anticipate the needs of journalists with whom you have established relationships and know your industry. Beyond that, it is optimal to newsjack within 24-48 hours of news breaking as journalists rush to develop their next major stories. 

At a typical PR agency, success can depend on getting timely client approval for a same-day response to a breaking story. That means that the broad messaging and coordination process should be worked out in advance. A good PR plan can include solid examples of relevant situations and stories for comment so that all parties agree on what’s appropriate.

“Early on, PRs must communicate the importance of newsjacking and explain how it works to ensure their buy-in and reinforce the value. Then, if a client is immediately needed for approvals, interviews, etc., they’ll understand and deliver,” shares our own Chris Harihar. 

Finally, PR teams can ensure a speedy response by dedicating a team member to handling research. Knowing your audience is great, but understanding how media operate and whom to target at those outlets is key. 

You can’t plan to newsjack, but you can anticipate trends

It all starts with the plan.  PR teams should look ahead to forthcoming news events and determine trends, but, unfortunately, it is impossible to predict the next big story.

So, how can we position brands and companies as relevant when the news cycle shifts the conversation so quickly?

  1. Stay up to speed on the latest news. Narrow the focus to your industry through media monitoring tools like Google Alerts, building a Twitter moments list and flagging trending news or relevant keyword searches.

  2. Have easy access to a content library of pre-approved commentary from company spokespersons, compiled pitches, data reports and, if applicable, company blogs.

  3. Streamline the process for journalists by keeping responses short, sweet and to the point.

Finally, bear in mind that newsjacking doesn’t have to be negative; in fact, it’s usually smarter to focus on positive stories or breaking news that’s relatively neutral, like an economic report or corporate merger. A cross-national study of negativity bias in humans shared “the potential for more positive content, and suggest that there may be a reason to reconsider the conventional journalistic wisdom that if it bleeds, it leads.”


Reactive PR Opportunities In Brand Mentions

Most often, reactive PR is associated with “newsjacking,” where a brand may seize on a trending news story through social posts or expert commentary in the media. Then there are the real-time marketing coups, like when  Tide and Oreo took advantage of the 2013 Super Bowl blackout with witty ads; or Snickers sent its product to the Top Gear host who had been suspended for having a meltdown on set.

Whatever you call it, reactive PR response can we a winning tactical play. When brands happen to get a mention in pop culture in a tangential, incidental, or even neutral manner, a creative PR pro can start a new conversation spotlighting that brand.

PR wins from brand commandeering

Arby’s hits back with humor

Jon Stewart made a recurring comedic bit of referring to Arby’s in the most pejorative way, with mocking comments like “Arby’s: Because your hunger is stronger than your memory.” The chain responded to The Daily Show‘s criticisms with good nature and humor, much to its advantage. When Stewart retired as host, Arby’s even tweeted him a job application and made a hilarious farewell viral video. Instead of responding with silence, defensiveness, or counterattacks, the brand chose to live up to its good-natured persona through humor. In doing so, it created a positive association with a cultural touchstone and his large, loyal audience. And it did so in a dignified manner, taking home a reactive PR win.

Tide cleans up a crisis

Sometimes, a cultural phenomenon can be the source of incidental, undeserved negative brand attention. While not a direct attack on Tide’s products, the viral video trend of teenagers filming themselves eating Tide Pods in 2017-2018 led to many emergency room reports – and the risk of injury or worse. P&G responded by sharing a serious and subtly humorous video PSA with Rob Gronkowski, a popular athlete with appeal to teenagers. It also launched a social media campaign with humorous memes and messages about the dangers of the behavior. Not only is this episode considered textbook crisis management, but it also boosted Tide’s brand exposure. It followed the PSA with one of the most celebrated Super Bowl ads less than three weeks later. The brand took advantage by turning unwanted media attention into both a successful PR response and a marketing win.

Chevrolet goes from 0 to 62 million in 24 hours
Chevy PR real-time marketing win

As an official sponsor of Major League Baseball in 2014, it was up to Chevrolet to present the World Series MVP with a new Chevy Colorado in front of a national TV audience. But Chevy’s representative Rikk Wilde had stage fright and fumbled his speech, leading to his stuttering quip: “It combines class winning, um, leading… ‘ya know, technology and stuff.” Immediately, viewers made #TechnologyandStuff and #ChevyGuy trending hashtags, mocking Wilde and Chevrolet. Instead of passively absorbing the dent to its image, the PR team capitalized on the opportunity to show its down-to-earth good humor.
Chevy joined the #TechnologyandStuff party, leading to over 62 million impressions, a viral video, and newfound celebrity for the #ChevyGuy. Chevrolet even incorporated ChevyGuy into its future marketing campaigns. Like Arby’s, Chevy responded in a way that was authentic to its brand voice and aligned with its customer values, skillfully creating a positive windfall out of a potential PR setback.

McDonald’s wrong-time marketing?

Like newsjacking, brand commandeering must be executed only in appropriate situations, with appropriate timing, and with consideration of the big picture. In May of 2013, three Cleveland women who had been held captive by a violent predator were rescued with the help of Charles Ramsey, who was living next door. In TV news interviews of the rescue, Ramsey mentioned he’d been eating a Big Mac when he heard the victims’ shouts for help. Taking a chance by newsjacking the mention of its brand, McDonald’s tweeted, “Way to go Charles Ramsey. We’ll be in touch.”

Most observers accepted the tweet from McDonald’s as a nice part of the story, given the enormous media interest in the case and Ramsey’s feel-good role in helping free the women. Yet the brand may have jumped on the news too soon, as it soon came out that Ramsey’s past included charges of domestic violence, burglary, drug abuse, and jail time. The brand made good on its pledge to give Ramsey free Big Macs for a year and donated $10,000 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as a good-will gesture, but it turned out the rescue wasn’t such a golden PR opportunity after all.

PR makes a real-time social statement

Last week, Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, seized on Roseanne Barr’s name-drop of its product in her controversial Twitter apology for her racist tweet. The Sanofi PR team used subtle wit and plain language to start its own conversation about the social issue in question. More humor would have been reductive, and a more personal attack on Barr would have probably been excessive. Instead the company took just enough of a stand to be relevant, but not alienate stakeholders.

Reactive PR is no longer solely the purview of crisis management. In certain scenarios, opportunistic PR/marketing actions can provide value-added publicity for your brand. While forethought and proactivity are still everything to best public relations practice, reactive PR should be taken seriously as a powerful tool in generating value out of a seemingly minor mention of your brand. A creative PR pro who has a firm command of your genuine brand voice can make something out of nothing when the next unhinged celebrity or unlikely hero name-drops your product and forces your brand into the limelight.

Smart PR Move of the Week: "I’ll Send You to Belize"

On AMC’s irresistible “Breaking Bad,” now in its final season, “going to Belize” isn’t a good thing. It’s a threat. So when in a recent episode, the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (played brilliantly by Bob Odenkirk) suggests that a troublesome character could be, um…”sent to Belize” – well, use your imagination. It didn’t mean mojitos and coastal sunsets, unless that’s your idea of the afterlife.
Fans smirked at the reference, and the Belize Tourism Board noticed. But instead of getting mad and overreacting, as some might have done, or shrugging, as most would have done, the Belize group saw an opportunity.

It moved quickly to take advantage of the mention and to turn a negative reference into positive visibility for the destination. A few days later, Belize invited show runner Vince Gilligan and its key cast members, including stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, to enjoy an actual vacation in Belize, all expenses paid.

The invite was filled with the kind of inside-baseball details that only a true “Breaking Bad” fan would know, and the timing was ideal, since the show recently wrapped after five successful seasons, and the cast is surely in needs of some creative down time (although presumably well able to pay their own way.)

The Belize Tourism Board broke news on its Twitter account with a quirky invitation, where it was picked up by show fans and even covered by The New York Times and other outlets. And though it likely won’t have to make good on the offer of free vacations, it did reap the PR benefits.

There are those times when a well-crafted PR response flows like another day at the beach. Well played, Belize Tourism Board.

PR Pros, To Newsjack Or Not To Newsjack?

Sometimes the lines are clear as day. A story hits, and hits hard, and you have a client with an ancillary message that meshes perfectly. Last year, as unemployment was peaking, and new grads were facing an uncertain job market, we mounted an unlikely, and therefore newsworthy, job search on behalf of a client. It was a positive pitch in a negative time and proved terribly successful with business and consumer press.

Sometimes the lines are not so clear, as evidenced by Superstorm Sandy and all that she unleashed. Many well-meaning companies, large and small brands alike, made such significant contributions to the recovery effort that they deserve mention in the media.

Where the need to newsjack became questionable was with certain companies or individuals who felt compelled to slap “Sandy” on a sale or promotion or unrelated piece of company business in the hope of riding the Sandy wave.

In most cases, this fails utterly and triggers a backlash, as when InStyle magazine offered a special package of cosmetics under the thematic name Hurricane Sandy Have You Stuck Inside? 5 Beauty Treatments to Help Ride Out the Storm. Clueless! Or when Online dating site HowAboutWe published a blog post titled “18 of Our Favorite Hurricane Sandy Date Ideas from HowAboutWe Members” that explores hurricane-themed date ideas from members.

These ideas may have seemed smart “on paper” but can only be considered opportunistic once executed. Do you find yourself questioning when to “newsjack” a breaking news event? Ask yourself these questions to help determine the best approach.

1. Is your client providing a true service to the suffering? Whether educational, monetary or tangible in any other way, if the answer is yes, then a modest message is palatable and even helpful.
2. Does the link between your client and the event pass “the smell test” (does common sense tell you that the connection is actually authentic, credible, ethical?)
3. Is your news timely? Can you get something relevant out in time for the connection to be meaningful rather than “me too?”
4. Is the client offering clever? Catchy? Avoid a lazy latch-on in favor of a smart, well thought-out approach.

How To "Newsjack" – Ethically

Recent conversation about “newsjacking” as the province of PR bottom-feeders has set off a minor digital storm. But I’m not sure what the fuss is about.

The term originated with David Meerman Scott, who wrote a book on the topic; he defines it in the subtitle as “inject(ing) your ideas into breaking news” with a goal of generating media coverage. And in doing so, Scott has “newsjacked” something that’s familiar to most PR people and packaged it with a clever label (something else many PR pros excel in doing.)

Which leads to my question. Apart from the name, which admittedly may have negative connotations to some, how is this different from what PR pros have been doing since Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee? After all, a classic public relations strategy is to shoehorn your client’s story into a broader trend or happening to make it more topical, and thus, more appealing to journalists.

Scott’s focus is more about “real time,” and therefore emphasizes piggybacking on breaking news events more than trends or memes, but it’s the same principle as any good PR program that borrows interest from a seemingly unrelated event or movement. I worked at an agency where we called it “news surfing,” which may have a more pleasant ring, but to me it’s all the same.

So, why the concern? And what’s new here?

It may come down to the tone of the story idea, sensitivity, and propriety. Given the speed with which real-time response to a news event is possible, newsjacking is more common than it used to be. And it seems to get more intense during an election year.

For example: A spokesperson for Mitt Romney describes the candidate’s ability to pivot from primary season to the general election as “almost like an Etch A Sketch.” Romney’s opponents seize the moment and hold up an actual Etch A Sketch toy at the next debate. In a second “newsjack” of coverage involving its own toy, Ohio Art, the Etch A Sketch’s maker, releases a pun-filled statement announcing a campaign called “Shake It Up, America” to capitalize on the moment and sends samples to all the candidates. Both its sales and its stock price are shaken up, too – in a good way. Well played.

My agency scored in a similar, albeit more modest, way when we read that some freshmen House members were sleeping in their offices to cut costs. Naturally, we offered them special comfy pillows from our client Sleepy’s. The best part is that we landed coverage without having to actually deliver any merchandise. (The Representatives were shy about accepting even small gifts.)

A different story hijacking attempt: In the wake of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a PR firm sends out a pitch titled, “Don’t Let Anyone Go All Batman On Your Kids” promoting a Minnesota chiropractor claiming to offer a treatment for a nervous condition that could potentially lead to violent behavior. Now, most professionals (and everyone else) would call this shameless ambulance-chasing and consider it eligible for Gawker’s weekly PR Dummies column, which is where I read it.

These examples illustrate some simple tenets of news surfing.

Be tasteful. It’s okay to jump on negative news, though debatable whether you should kick someone when they’re down. But any good professional will draw the line  – or at least a decent interval – at news events that involve tragic loss of life.

Be credible. Apart from its appalling lack of sensitivity, the chiropractic pitch is just way too far from issues of mental health or public safety to be believable.

Be timely. There’s nothing sadder than a late attempt to piggyback onto breaking news a week later. For breaking news, you may have a 48-hour window; for trends, a bit longer, but sooner is nearly always better.

Be catchy. That’s what Scott did with his “newsjacking” label. It’s guaranteed to grab media attention, which is half the battle.

Be relevant. A real-time news-surf is one thing; but if a brand can demonstrate relevance or usefulness, i.e. if it solves a problem or commits to a longer-term idea, it can ride that wave all the way to a stronger and more meaningful brand identity.

Now, that’s PR.