As I was sitting in a pub quiz a few weeks ago a question about a more than 10-year-old triathlon competition in Scotland came up. I won’t lie, as soon as I heard the beginning of the question I was already irked as I thought it would just be another pointless information question about an event X that happened Y years ago.
However, the question had nothing to do with the competition. In fact, we were given 5 seconds to answer what an insurance company did that caught the attention of everyone during the competition.
Did they give all the competitors a life-long supply of whiskey? Ran with them while wearing nothing but kilts? No, they gave each and every person of the 100 who participated in the Visit Schotland AdventureTriathlon a 1-million-pound insurance against a bite from the Loch Ness monster. In other words, in a very subtle* way they managed to newsjack the event. You can imagine what happened next as this thing is still remembered in pub quizzes to this day.
Newsjacking is nothing new in the realm of communications. Underneath the fancy term lies a technique based on slicing off some of an already active news-coverage to shine some light on a company’s product, service or the company itself. To quote the D. M. Scott who coined the term: “Newsjacking is the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.”
Sounds simple enough. So simple that the term managed to hit 2017 Oxford word of the year shortlist. And yet, really effective newsjacking examples are rare and far in between, at least the type that we would continue talking about for years to come.
So what should you focus on if you are planning to deliver a successful newsjacking?
One of the first things to take into consideration is timing. When you get an idea of using breaking news to propel your message, you have to take into account the time you will have available to make the decision to act or not. Even when the news cycle and a certain message seem to be meant for each other, most of them never see the light of day. In the span it takes to perfect the message, get all the necessary decision makers to agree upon it and give the green light, the media moves on and the initial breaking news becomes stale and uninteresting.
Newsjacking needs to happen before the media and society have gathered all the information they need. Be just a little bit late and your message might get drowned out or simply resemble an overly flashy dress from last season. If you are willing to exercise the idea of implementing newsjacking then pre-planning is in order. Not unlike the military or a company setting up an outline for a possible crisis, people in charge of specific tasks should be delegated, the designated person to give the green light informed about their responsibility and be known to the rest of the staff. It is important to understand that in this specific case, the marketing department should have more leeway perhaps even given complete autonomy from the upper echelons in the company in order to save time instead of waiting for everyone’s approval.
Newsjacking at its core can’t be pre-planned, thus it requires a hefty amount of luck to simply be in the right place at the right time. Keeping an ever vigilant and close eye on the pulse of the news cycle is both time and resource consuming, however it is a lot easier to find a big wave if you are actually watching the water.
This does not necessarily mean that you need to monitor all the available news outlets and social media, perhaps a more concentrated network of public figures, influencers, bloggers and a scan of trending key-words and activated Google Alerts would do. Additionally, you should regularly spend time to self-reflect, to crystalize what you and your product or service stand for, what values you espouse, and what topics would you find easiest to newsjack. Also, don’t forget to keep your sense of humor sharp, most effective campaigns usually have that in spades.
Although in Lithuania Twitter finds it difficult to find its niche, global trends show that this social media is the main hub for newsjacking as through its use of hashtags it shortens the time it takes for information to travel from a single user to the media. The 2013 Oreo tweet during the Super Bowl power outage is to this day considered one of the best newsjacking examples to date.
The benefit of social media can also become its curse as the time for action becomes even shorter. As every single person on social media becomes an informational channel it becomes even more tricky to not get drowned out in the chorus of voices, thus the timing to go viral needs to be absolutely spot on perfect. If you are sitting on a good idea, it is worth the time to pre-plan your actions for social media just as diligently as you would for traditional media channels.
In the fight for attention different forms for messaging can work, newsjacking isn’t an exception to this rule. If you have the resources and think the thing that caught everyone’s attention will last for a while, then get to work on a video. An successful example of that would be the city of Basel who rode the wave of Pokemon Go while it lasted. If you feel the time is really limited and you need to act now, then perhaps a clever tweet or Facebook post is the best avenue to take. If you feel that you have more to say about whatever is gripping the news and think you can steer it in a different direction, then perhaps a well prepared press release is in order. And if you feel fearless and bold, why not leave a clever comment under someone else’s post that is already trending?
Although everyone has the right to have an opinion about virtually everything, an effective and valuable communication can only be achieved if you do not stray too far from your product or service and most importantly the values you espouse to as a company. People are quick to pick up on dissonance between public image and a differing message. Finally, even if your company’s and the breaking news’ Venn diagrams overlap you need to look ahead and think on whether you would have something more to contribute, have a story to tell about your decision, a way to join the public discourse and, if you make promises, manage to live up to them.
It is important to take a serious look at the prevailing climate of political correctness and take into account that even the most honest and benign message can sometimes be misconstrued. This goes double for when you want to newsjack a message relating to a sensitive topic. Pick the wrong tone and charges of poor taste will be levied against you in no time. Fast-forward a few rounds of vehemently proclaiming to have been misunderstood and you might find yourself in a position where you will have to start publicly apologizing. When you think about it, the concept of newsjacking in itself is already walking a thin line of ethics and morality. Thus, a central goal of any newsjacking message is to be phrased so finely, that there would be no chance to accuse you of anything unsavory.
Not unlike memes, only a small portion of newsjacking attempts become success stories, but the ones that do rise above the rest usually yield enormous results. Though it is important to note, that as bright as those might shine, they still can’t outweigh or replace purposeful, consistent and conscious long-term communication. On the contrary, an overzealous attempt to constantly newsjack the internet might turn you into an ironic version of marketing professionalsthat no one would take seriously anymore.
*Fun fact: It is said that not everyone was thrilled with the idea. The official Nessie fan club issued a statement lamenting the fact that the insurance agency presupposes that the sweet Loch Ness monster could ever attack anyone. Everyone knows that Nessie is kind and friendly, after all, she has been living next to people all these years and has yet to hurt anyone.