Newsjack(ass)ing: PR Fail in the Wake of Tragedy and Crisis


Newsjacking is the (sometimes) clever, quick-response PR tactic piggybacking on current events with an angle benefiting you or your client’s company.  The strategy is not new by any means, but became increasingly popular over the last several years with the rise of Twitter and the constant struggle to stay relevant and timely as news stories can be buried within minutes.

Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott’s definition of newsjacking is the “process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business.”

To execute newjacking appropriately you must stay abreast of breaking news stories, know your target audience and most importantly, utilize common sense.  As a result you can increase search rankings and exposure to new customers or clients.  Failing to heed these rules results in you: 1) completely falling on your face in a desperate attempt to promote a hardly-relevant spin on a topic and 2) most likely pissing-off a social community of very vocal citizens.

In the wake of the devastating Hurricane Sandy, I felt the need to bring up the most sensitive and more-often-than-not inappropriate newsjacking, which occurs during a tragedy. Like this gem, below:

President John F. Kennedy once famously noted that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters; one representing danger and the other representing opportunity.

It is the opportunity portion of crisis in which many wide-eyed marketers neglect any sense of sympathy or reason and in-turn embarrass themselves, their company and the entire industry of public relations.

HupSpot received much backlash this week in a blog post that has since been taken down highlighting marketers who have newsjacked during the horrific Hurricane Sandy. Hubspot responded in a follow-up post, semi-apologizing and posing the question: “Is Newsjacking Hurricane Sandy Right or Wrong?”

The marketing resource provides some awful examples of newsjacking and a couple that are partially relevant to emergency tactics or supplies.

The worst include InStyle Magazine’s cosmetics story: Hurricane Sandy Have You Stuck Inside? 5 Beauty Treatments to Help Ride Out the Storm and online dating site HowAboutWe’s blog post titled: 18 of Our Favorite Hurricane Sandy Date Ideas from HowAboutWe Members. Yes, because my family on the East Coast’s primary concern is their manicure art or planning their next date during 80mph winds.

I’ve coined this lack of intellect and sensitivity: newsjackassing. But it’s definitely far from the first time this kind of idiocracy has occurred.

A few short months ago the Aurora tragedy was followed by more instances of tasteless and disgusting marketing; most notably a retail boutique whose staff tweeted this, mere hours after the shootings:

@celebboutique: #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;)”

WTF, right? Insensitive, shocking and complete disregard for all the families and victims affected on that day in Colorado.  The boutique claimed they did not know about the event as they are out of the country, yet they tweet about Kim Kardashian. Don’t buy it. And neither did Twitter.  The CelebBoutique ruined their online image forever.

You will not overcome these very public mistakes mocking or downplaying a crisis; instead exercise tact, empathy and better judgment, if you can’t — then rethink your career choice.

As a PR professional disgust is the word that is most accessible in my mind, as well as other obscenities stemming from the frustration when I learn about horribly misplaced PR stunts. I secretly hope these individuals have zero background in the field, but I know I am just fooling myself. Of course we all make mistakes, but these instances are blatantly crass and unforgiving.

Unless your company or client has a product or service directly applicable to a situation as severe as the above, leave it be. There are very few companies in this category, and if you have to wonder if you apply, the answer is always no.

Don’t be a jackass.