By Gary Frisch, President, Swordfish Communications
When the May issue of Rolling Stone magazine debuted, featuring a cover shot of Julia Louis-Dreyfus with a “tattoo” of the U.S. Constitution on her back, an uproar went out. Not because the photo was particularly risqué or blasphemous, but because underneath the text is the large, unmistakable signature of John Hancock. The problem is, Hancock’s John Hancock is on the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia took some delight in pointing out the error on its Twitter feed, tweeting “George Washington to @RollingStone – Thanks for the shout out but no Hancock here,” along with a photo of the statues in its Signers Hall. The nonprofit center was mentioned in dozens if not hundreds of major media news stories about the goof.
This is an example of “newsjacking”—and knowing what it is, how to do it, and most importantly when to do it can be a powerful, cost-free way of generating exposure for your business or organization.
Quite simply, newsjacking means hijacking something the news media is already talking about, and finding a way to relate it to your business. Often, the organizations that do this look for something that is tongue-in-cheek, but will capture people’s attention. It doesn’t necessarily have to be humorous like the above example, though. Anything that’s on the mind of reporters—and their readers or viewers—is ripe for newsjacking, within limits.
Imagine that you run a bakery that specializes in cupcakes, and a national or local wedding planners group comes out with its updated cost for throwing a wedding in your region. You notice the cost of the traditional wedding cake has skyrocketed, and now accounts for 5% of the overall expenses. Now might be a great time to pitch a food or style writer on the unique appeal of substituting decorative cupcakes for a multi-tier wedding cake.
Or, if you run a food pantry, put out a press release based on the same news noting how many families could eat a healthy meal if the bride and groom scale back the cost of the cake by a fraction and donated that money to a non-profit that assists those in need.
Pop cultural phenomena, like the Rolling Stone error, seem particularly ripe for newsjacking. In 2010, after Paris Hilton’s arrest for drug possession in Las Vegas was widely reported, Wynn Resorts promptly issued a statement banning the heiress from its properties. Maybe it was a slow news day, or the significance of the nation’s number one party girl being barred from the city’s glitziest hotel-casino, but Wynn’s press was picked up by just about every newspaper and syndicated entertainment column in the country, not to mention all the national broadcast news outlets.
In February, while the “gay discrimination bill”—the one that would’ve protected store owners who choose to deny service to homosexuals because of their own religious beliefs—wended its way through the Arizona state legislature, a Tucson pizzeria jumped into the fray. It posted a sign in its window saying “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona state legislators.” It was meant as a heartfelt protest to the proposed law, but a photo tweeted by the shop (or a passerby) quickly went viral and, like Wynn’s announcement, turned up just about everywhere. I don’t remember the name of that pizzeria, but I bet most Tucson residents do.
Things get dicier with stories of a serious nature, particularly those involving tragedy. Opportunities might exist, but as “Breaking Bad’s” meth kingpin Walter White would say, the best course would be to tread lightly. If you’re a personal safety expert, for example, you don’t want to put out a press release with tips on surviving an airplane water landing while authorities are searching for Malaysian Flight 370.
An egregious example of poor newsjacking came in the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks. The makers of the iconic Kit-Cat Clock, the one with the googly eyes, sent a pitch to the New York Times and other media outlets noting, “Through America’s toughest times, the Kit-Cat Klock has brightened our days for 70 years, through the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, Desert Storm and several recessions. We thought you might be interested in a historical profile of the clock in light of current events."
The publicist who hatched this idea was fired. I still cringe when I think about this epic PR fail.
When done properly, though, newsjacking doesn’t have to be a job-endangering minefield. In 2009, with the Philadelphia Phillies competing for their second straight World Series Championship, the media in the City of Brotherly Love was focused almost exclusively on the Fightin’ Phils. I suggested that my client, a make-your-own winery in nearby South Jersey, serve up a New Jersey merlot re-branded as “Phillie’s Phinest,” at a viewing party in their facility to show how wine lovers can root on the local team just as well as the boisterous beer-drinking crowd. I invited the media, and earned coverage on the local ABC station as well as a live interview with the winery’s proprietors on a Philadelphia morning television show.
Here are some tips for effective newsjacking:
Strike while the iron is hot. In today’s speed-of-Web environment, the best results come when you can get in front of the media fast. The next couple of hours is ideal; tomorrow or the day after is too late. Generally, small businesses have the benefit of being more agile than large corporations with their layers of bureaucracy. However, savvy corporations and familiar brands are empowering their PR and social media folks to respond quickly, like Arby’s did when it likened its logo to Pharrell Williams’ signature hat on Twitter during the Golden Globe Awards (then bought the hat in a charitable auction on eBay).
Exploit both traditional and new PR tools. A press release or media alert faxed or emailed to reporters can be effective, as long as it is sent fast. But social media, with strategic hashtags (e.g., #GoldenGlobes, #RollingStoneFail) is ideal for newsjacking because it is immediate, requires no media “gatekeeper” and can get the attention of both journalists and customers, especially if it’s shared/retweeted.
Think outside the box. All of the examples above involved creative or eyebrow-raising ways to inject the company’s name or service into the conversations. The most important rule is that there is some logical connection, even if it’s not initially obvious. Even the Kit-Cat Clock pitch was out-of-the-box, though woefully misguided. Which brings us to…
Always be tactful. Think about your pitch or tweet like an outsider, not a brand representative. If it’s related to bad news or poorly timed, it could be perceived as exploitative or in bad taste. That doesn’t mean every major story with negative connotations is completely off-limits, but you’d better be darn sure that what you’re offering is vital and relevant. The best rule is, “When in doubt, don’t send it out.” An experienced public relations consultant can help you determine what, if anything, to disseminate.
Newsjacking occurs almost every day. Once you know what to look for, it’s fairly easy to spot in the media you consume regularly. By keeping this tactic in mind, you’ll look at the news differently, and be more likely to jump on an opportunity when it presents itself.
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.