Why PR should steer clear of ‘newsjacking’
Has there ever been a case in history when someone wanted to be hijacked?
I struggle to think of one. By its very etymology, newsjacking – the hijacking of news – feels forceful and unwanted. And yet I have heard it in dozens of newsrooms across the UK.
As comms professionals, we have a role to play in making sure that reactive PR is both relevant and adds value to the audience. Failure to do so is a sure-fire way to damage your brand.
Equally, for all the effort that goes into it, I am yet to see an example of it being a truly efficient way to get your messages out over an extended period of time. For every pitch that lands, there are dozens that fail.
Maybe it is it time for PR to ditch the term ‘newsjacking’ completely?
Opportunism has its place
That is not to say that the concept has no value for communications more broadly.
In February 2013, the Super Bowl in New Orleans was plunged into darkness. One of the biggest events in the sporting calendar, with notoriously expensive advert slots, was making headlines for an unforeseen technical glitch.
Social media was ablaze. And yet through all of that chatter, Oreo posted a tweet that ‘won the Super Bowl blackout’.
Since then, big events and trends have become a key target for brands on social media; royal weddings, sporting finals, whether a dress is blue and black or white and gold.
It really can be a force for good. The problem arises when we apply the same approach to PR. A discerning target audience and cynicism of ‘piggybacking’ means you are likely to do more harm than good through an ill thought out piece of opportunism.
Embracing the third space
As communications professionals, we are all also consumers of news. Nothing irks me quite so much as a ‘piggybacking’ press release that feels inauthentic. The latest series premiere of Game of Thrones sparked any number of ‘Winter is Coming’ stories. Snore.
Many offices identify their communications as being either ‘proactive’ and ‘reactive’.
Teams across the country scan newspapers every morning to look for opportunities. This has value in terms of staying abreast of trends, but truth be told, with the nature of the 24 hour news cycle, you are already well behind the curve if you rely on this as the backbone of your responsive media plan.
Perhaps embracing the third space, being ‘proactively reactive’, can shift the landscape towards horizon scanning and offering genuine, valuable communications in tune with the news.
Indeed, doing so allows you the time and space in which to shape the news agenda, more than simply react to it, and gives your key messages more chance of being heard.
In my experience it also produces a high yield of coverage for relatively little input, particularly in comparison with the pure ‘newsjacking’ approach.
Value beyond PR
If daily newsjacking is part of your process, it also becomes the first thing to be dropped when the inbox overload hits.
Whether you are an individual PR person like myself, or part of a team, there is far more value in well-structured horizon scanning. There are a number of useful tools and tricks that can give you insight into what someone ‘might’ want next week, or next month. It is a process that rewards speculation and an inquisitive mind, gives you a better chance of weaving in your key messages and has far more value besides. It can even be fun to give yourself the time to slake your curiosity.
Even if you fall short of getting your spokesperson on the radio or otherwise, what you learn in horizon scanning gives you a toolkit for use in other areas. I have often mentioned upcoming opportunities in meetings with clients and it helps show that you are engaged and have a forward-thinking approach.
Beyond that, what might not be right for a PR push could well sit well on social media or a blog. A good idea can still be a good idea.
Avenues to success
There are a surprising number of tools at your disposal to make a strong calendar of potential activity. Their usefulness does depend on your client and message, and it is far from exhaustive, but here are some simple methods I have used to good effect in the past:
1) Government activity often sets the news agenda. We know when certain announcements are going to be made (some are recurring, and you can find upcoming statistics via the gov.uk website) and you can prepare your messages in advance. For those looking to shape policy it is perfect as it helps you stay abreast of the landscape too.
2) National and International Days. I have sometimes steered clear of the big hitters here, there are hundreds of stories about ‘brands going green’ on Earth Day, but a creative mind can make the most of lesser known ‘days’ that have social reach. National Pizza Day. International Talk Like A Pirate Day. There are plenty of them.
3) Make the most of predictable trends. There are only a few things certain in life; death, taxes and conversations about the weather. Heatwaves and ‘big chills’ are inevitable and always dominate the headlines. Plan ahead and know your content long before the Met Office issue those yellow warnings, then be patient and time it right. Just make sure what you add to the conversation is relevant to both the story and to your messages.
4) Follow your curiosity. I have fallen into many a Wikipedia wormhole looking for one thing, and finding another thing entirely. It’s a useful tool for starting your research, particularly if you are hunting forthcoming anniversaries in a particular field.
5) Listen to what the world tells you. Social media is a valuable place in which to search for ideas. I am signed up for YouGov surveys and the line of questioning can be an interesting insight into the polls in the field, and the likely stories that you will see in the coming weeks.