“Newsjacking” – a Good Idea with Some Dangerous Pitfalls

VultureFirst off, if you read this on the day of publication, I hope those of you affected by Hurricane Sandy are doing well.

The concept of “Newsjacking” has become popular in PR circles lately, thanks to a book by David Meerman Scott. Truth is, while “newsjacking” is of recent coinage, the concept – using current events and breaking news as a hook for public relations pitches – is not at all new.

What remains current, if not new, is the need to educate people on how to do this without seeming like an opportunistic stain on society. Just yesterday (as I write this), my friends at Hubspot wrote a post, “5 Hurricane Sandy Newsjacks From Marketers,” taking the idea from David, a friend of Hubspot, and applying it to the then-raging Hurricane Sandy. To be fair, Hubspot puts out a lot of excellent content as well, including much that is lighter in tone, trying to ride the line between content publisher and marketing software company. This post, I suspect, was supposed to be in that vein.

However, here’s where slippery judgment applies. Among the tips were a Pinterest board on “Hurricane Hair” and another suggestion for giving beauty tips for riding out the storm. Considering hurricanes are frequently deadly (16 dead according to the October 30 morning news), not to mention massive flooding, power outages, displacements, and damage, this is dodgy advice at best. Perusing the comments on that post, you can see that the Hubspot folks got an earful – and at least one friend who works here acknowledged that there were issues with the post (ETA: Hubspot’s CMO, Mike Volpe, added a preamble to the post that directly addresses – and accepts – the criticism and calls for more dialogue about the line between good and bad taste). More telling, David Meerman Scott himself commented, then wrote his own post to make sure that his concept of “Newsjacking” did not include vulture-like behavior during a natural disaster.

There are ways, even in more serious issues, that one can offer up PR over a serious story, but there bar for good taste is extremely high. A few tips:

  • Don’t Sell: Selling is usually a bad idea. Beauty products to get you through a storm? No. Placing ads in local media if you are selling generator may be helpful, but make sure you are helping people who may be in trouble, or just stay out of the way
  • Use Your Expertise to Help:  A colleague’s client, an expert in business continuity, placed an article with tips for communicators to keep things going when systems may get shut down. In this case, the expertise was clear, as was the target audience, and in my opinion the tone was not overly frivolous in the face of potential disaster.
  • If You Have to Ask, Shut Up: The Great Bogeyman of modern media relations disasters as regards newsjacking dates back to 2001, where a post September-11 pitch for a service not even closely related to the national tragedy went out. Just read the reaction story in the Wall Street Journal here. Most commonly, companies delay announcements and steer clear of urgent news stories. That’s a good thing.

I’m sure the Hubspot don’t want the concept of “newsjacking” to get a black eye, in what they intended to be a light-hearted post. I know David Meerman Scott doesn’t want that black eye. I don’t either, but there is a slippery slope to repeating what happened to that poor PR flak in 2001. Newsjacking has its place, just not here.

Additional Reading: Danny Brown, “There’s Nothing Savvy About Marketing or Newsjacking Disasters”

Photo Credit: mostlyfaces on Flickr


  1. Hey Doug,

    Many thanks for continuing the discussion of newsjacking. While the HubSpot post certainly attracted interest, it served a valuable purpose in that it got us talking.

    While there have been similar strategies to Newsjacking for years, what changed recently is that Google now indexes in real-time. That allow a timely blog post to be seen by journalists as they search for more information on a topic. Real-time is the key here. Yet nearly all PR people are in campaign mode rather than real-time mode, so those like us who understand newsjacking have an advantage.

  2. David, thanks– agree about campaign mode– that’s an illness infecting a lot of PR and marketing- and thanks for pointing out how real-time has changed things. Newsjacking definitely ha new rules (to borrow a phrase) that have changed the game, but the need for common sense and compassion has not.

    I was happy to see Mike Volpe and the team keep the blog post open for dialogue, and acknowledge there were problems with the examples they laid out.

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